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The Red Tent – Book Review

My blog has been all but silent for six months, for personal reasons and also because I haven’t felt inspired to write. But suddenly this week, only two-thirds of the way through my book club book I felt the need to share.

I joined my local library book club about 12 months ago because I’m not very adventurous in my reading. I tend to find an author I like, read everything I can find and then it may be years before I stumble upon another I like. My recent reading list includes re-reading all the Terry Pratchett on my bookshelf, old hardbacked editions of kids books that I find in op shops and generally anything in the Murder Mystery genre.

The book club reads so far had ranged from really quite good (The Book Thief) to disappointing (Dawn French’s A Tiny Bit Marvellous). The Red Tent by Anita Diamant however, put them all in the shadow. I’d already decided to give it 5 stars only two-thirds of the way through!

TheRedTent_1835

This book tells the story of Dinah from the Old Testament. The author takes Dinah’s story from Genesis 34 and chooses to re-imagine what may have happened…

I was drawn to retell the biblical story of Dinah in large part because of her silence.  In Genesis 34, Dinah’s experience is described and characterized by the men in her family, who treat her as a rape victim, which in that historical setting meant that she was irredeemably ruined and degraded.  Because she does not say a word (and because of the extraordinary loving actions taken by her accused assailant), I found it easy to imagine an alternative telling to the story, in which Dinah is not a passive victim but a young woman who makes choices and acts on her own initiative.  Not only did I find it easy, I found it necessary.”

-Anita Diamant (September, 2007)

I am drawn to this story for many reasons. Firstly, I love books set in a different time and place, particularly if it’s a woman’s story being told. The book begins with the meeting of Dinah’s mother Leah and father Jacob. You get a clear insight into their everyday lives, the culture and traditions and politics of the time. The Red Tent is introduced, a place where women go during their monthly cycle together, where the women birth their children. Here they are supported by each other, connected through songs and stories (and probably a lot of gossip!). This was the reason the title grabbed me in the first place. Not long ago I read of a tribe in Africa (I think) where the women all sit together in ‘The Red Tent’ and bleed back into the earth. I’ve wanted to learn more about it.

The story continues as Dinah’s mother and ‘mother-aunties’ pair with her father Jacob and produce many sons and finally after many boys, Dinah arrives. As the only daughter in the large family she is probably given more privilege than was custom at the time. She continues to enter the Red Tent even after weaning. It’s her experience as a witness to events inside the Red Tent that I find most fascinating, the descriptions of many births, both difficult and easy. The way the women all supported each other during birth. I could picture it all in my mind. A circle of women, chanting, singing, encouraging. A skilled midwife, with extensive knowledge of birth and herbs. A month afterwards of complete rest and love. I got such a strong sense of ‘this is how birth should be’.

The story moves on to Dinah’s adult life and to the events described in Genesis 34. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it, but you follow Dinah right up until her death. I like that too. I don’t like it when I finish a book only to think “But what happens next?”.

The Red Tent is just so well-written. I never got bored, or had to skip over descriptive text. Every page held me. Every night after I turned the light out I would lie awake for an hour just thinking back over the story. Although this is the author’s interpretation of the culture and customs of the time, I believe it to be a very plausible version.

My mind would always go back to the early part of the book and imagine these women’s lives together. They were skilled in cooking, weaving, farming and midwifery. They respected the earth and followed the seasons. How I would love to travel in time to see these women. I realise I’m focusing on the positive aspects of their lives. They faced huge hardships that we in the western world know nothing of. Their lives were ruled by men, who may have been violent, foolish or otherwise.

As much as we have moved on in the present time, when I think of these women I can’t help but think we’ve lost something really important. As I sit here in my home, surrounded by walls and fences, I feel the stark contrast of living in a physically close community as they did. Eating, sleeping, working together everyday, looking after each other’s children. Sharing skills and supporting each other in difficult times. The majority of us give birth in hospital, attended by a midwife we’ve never met, who changes shift with another one before the baby has been birthed. Random medical people pop their heads in and watch to see how things are going. We take a support person/s, but if they are not medically trained or very well-informed, we can just feel lost. Swept up in the current of procedure, in an unfamiliar, stark room. And now imagine that tent… A place you sit every month with your sisters, nieces, friends. And it is here you give birth, supported by those same people who love you, who know who you are. I know where I’d rather be.

But this wasn’t meant to be a debate on hospital/home birth, just a rave about a book I really love. I hope you read it too.

Happy reading everyone.

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