Over the summer I picked up The Red Tent by Anita Diamant for some poolside reading, with the expectation that most of the writing would go straight over my head. In reality, this piece of historical fiction was one of the best books I have read all year. I felt like I was transported back to another time and place.
The Red Tent is set in Biblical times in the Middle East and Egypt. The story is told from the point of view of Dinah, the only daughter of the Jacob made famous in the Book of Genesis. Jacob was known for having four wives: Leah, Rachel, Billah, and Zilpah. Though Dinah was a child of Leah, she grew up surrounded by three other mothering figures, whom she referred to as aunts. Dinah’s narrative begins before she was even born and has an omniscient quality. The book starts with the day Jacob arrives near Laban’s camp in the desert. Laban is the father of Rachel and Leah and the father figure of Billah and Zilpah. On the very same day of his arrival, Jacob, who we soon learn is actually a cousin of the girls, proposes marriage to the beautiful Rachel. This offer is refused on account o her young age, but Jacob stays and becomes a valued family member and honored guest, working hard in the fields and managing Laban’s herd of sheep until the family is wealthier than they had ever been before. Thanks to a prank played by Zilpah, Jacob ends up marrying Leah first, but is soon followed by Rachel. Billah and Zilpah are given to Jacob as part of the dowry and, though they never actually marry, those women too become his wives. Dinah is born amidst 12 boys by a combination of the wives, and is treated by her mothers as one of the women. She spends time in the red tent, the women’s tent, and listens to their stories, advice, and complaints. Dinah learns of her mothers’ different relationships with her unusually kind father: Leah’s intellectual one, Rachel’s passionate one, Billah’s caring one, and Zilpah’s distant one. When Jacob’s family packs up and leaves Laban, who had become greedy and abusive, Dinah recounts life on the road for months until the clan finally settles in modern day Israel. Life for Dinah changes with her new location, and visits to Egypt introduce her to her true love and future husband, a young king. They live in happiness for only a brief reprieve before a tragic event provides a catalyst for the greatest adventure of Dinah’s life.
I enjoyed reading this book for many reasons, but primarily because I found it fascinating to see what life was like for a woman in Biblical times. Dinah had very little interaction with her fathers and brothers, but came to know her mothers better than she knew herself. Dinah portrays Leah as strong and wise Rachel as more beautiful, loving, and sensitive; Zilpah as mysterious and constantly making predictions of the future; and Billah as lovable and quiet. I also liked the way the story was told. The author matches the narration to Dinah’s age, for example, she observes different things at age 10 than at age 20, and responds to her surroundings differently. The Red Tent is not hard to read at all and written in modern English, making it quick and enjoyable.
I would recommend this book for anyone who likes history class at school, but without all of the small details and memorization. This book transports you, and while you are in the desert with Jacob’s family, you cannot help but learn about their beliefs, culture, and way of life. I would also suggest this book as a read for girls, because it focuses mainly on a woman’s role and issues only a female would have faced. Finally, I think it is important to have a general knowledge of Jacob’s story in the Bible because it provides a foundation Anita Diamant builds on. Overall, I would give this book a solid five stars because once I cracked the spine I could not bear to put it down until I had finished!