Monday, May 25, 2009

Barren B*tches Book Brigade: "The Red Tent" by Anita Diamant

Gather around, book lovers, for another session of the Barren B*tches Book Brigade, the ALI (adoption/loss/infertility) community's virtual book club, organized by Melissa at Stirrup Queens. Participants read the same book and each submit a question to Melissa, who compiles & circulates the question list. We then answer at least three of them in our blog, and post at or around the same time on the same day. Melissa maintains the master list of participants on her blog.

Our selection this time was "The Red Tent" by Anita Diamant -- based (somewhat loosely) on the Biblical story of Dinah in Genesis 34. I was not quite sure what to expect from this novel. But with its stories of mothers and daughters, sisters and grandmothers, aunts and cousins, grief and loss (including the losses of many, many babies), infertility and conception, friendship and rivalry, vengeance and forgiveness, this was definitely a novel worthy of the BB Book Brigade.

While I am not a Biblical scholar by any means, I'm probably more familiar with the Bible & its stories than a lot of younger people today. When I was in elementary school, we had Bible stories read to us every morning after singing O Canada & reciting the Lord's Prayer -- and this was in PUBLIC school, in 1960s & 70s westen Canada. (Definitely not done today, of course... not even O Canada in some schools, apparently.) And of course I attended Sunday school on Sundays, & Anglican Junior Auxiliary -- or, if there wasn't an Anglican church where we lived, United Church Explorers once a week after school.

Anyway, I remembered the stories of brothers/rivals Jacob & Esau (the twin sons of Isaac & Rebecca, grandsons of Abraham & Sarah), and Jacob's wives, the sisters Leah & Rachel, and, of course, Jacob's son Joseph & his many bretheren (as made famous in "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat") -- but I drew a blank when it came to Dinah.

Dinah -- pronounced Dee-nah, not Dye-nah (as in "someone's in the kitchen with...") -- was Jacob's only daughter and a sister to Joseph (by different mothers). "The Red Tent" is Dinah's story -- as imagined/interpreted by the author. (If you read the scant few paragraphs in the Bible about Dinah in Genesis 34, you'll find quite a different tale.) Dinah grows up in rural Canaan, living in a tent community with her extended family, working the fields and tending the livestock.

The Red Tent is where the women of the community spend their menstrual period, their childbirth labours and a month or two after giving birth, bonding with the other women. (Diamant admits there is no historical evidence that women of the Bible used a menstrual tent, although they were common in the pre-modern world.) There is rivalry among Jacob's four sister-wives, but also support, and Dinah learns the craft of midwifery from her aunt Rachel, becoming a skilled midwife in her own right as an adult. While Jacob has vowed to follow the one God of his father and grandfather, the women of his tribe still carry out pagan rituals based on the lunar cycles. It's hard to know sometimes exactly what is fact & what is fiction, but it's a fascinating and richly drawn portrait of early Biblical-era life.

Shortly after Dinah's coming of age, she falls in love with a prince of the city -- unleashing a horrific chain of events that dramatically changes her life, and those of her family members, forever. Ultimately, however, despite the terrible losses she endures, Dinah eventually finds happiness and carves out a new life for herself in Egypt.

Here are the questions I've chosen to answer:

"The sight of the baby in Bilpah's arms, day after day, shattered Rachel's confidence again. She was only the aunt, the bystander, the barren one." Did you find the author sympathetic or disparaging of Rachel's barren state? Did she convincingly relate the experience of being barren?

There were a number of questions related to Rachel's infertility/recurrent pregnancy losses, & how it affected her relationships with her sisters. Perhaps someone who has never experienced infertility or loss might find Rachel's reactions somewhat hard to understand. But:
"Rachel could not smile at her sister while her own body remained fruitless... Rachel tried every remedy, every potion, every rumored cure... Rachel grew quiet. She stopped attending Inna and did not rise from her blanket until Leah shook her and insisted she help the rest of the women in their work. Only then would Rachel spin or weave or work the garden, but wordlessly and without a smile."

Sounds pretty accurate to me!

Which character did you relate to most in the story -- Rachel, Leah or Dinah? Why?

Hmmm. Truthfully, I could relate to all three of them, in different ways. I'm the oldest of two sisters, & I recognized myself in Leah, the responsible oldest sister. (I always felt sorry for the Biblical Leah, being passed off as her younger, prettier sister -- the one Jacob really wanted -- at the altar by her conniving father, knowing her husband was expecting to find someone else under the veil.)

While I hope I'm not quite as flighty as young Rachel sometimes seemed, I most certainly identified with her struggles with infertility and loss, and her feelings of inadequacy and jealousy and rivalry with her more fertile sisters.

But I think I probably identified with Dinah most, especially in the Egypt part of the book, toward the end. Dinah was not childless -- she had a son, but he was mostly raised by others, so she was virtually childless. Estranged from her birth family after the violent death of her husband, an onlooker in her son's life, she nevertheless (eventually) manages to create a new life for herself in Egypt, with new friends, a thriving career as a midwife and, eventually, finding new love and happiness with a master carpenter in the Valley of the Kings. When she dies, she is not alone, but with her husband and friends, people who love her.

I've written several times about my struggle with the fact that I won't have any children to remember me or leave my possessions to -- but Dinah's son tells his wife about his birth mother, and the niece she met only once, anonymously, names her own daughter Dinah after the aunt she had heard about. It's a message of hope that resonated deeply with me -- that one can rise above loss and tragedy and still lead a happy, meaningful life -- that people will remember you and that you will remain a part of them (even if they are not your own children).

The family trees shown at the beginning of the book don't include miscarriages, stillbirths, or children who died before weaning. Given the rate of infant mortality at the time, this was a logical method for "counting" children. Now that it's much more rare (but still too common) to lose children both before and after birth, at what point do you think children should be added to the official family tree? At what point should they be added to the parents' personal tally of children?

At whatever point they want to add them. : ) Of course, my personal belief is that all children should be included, whether they live or die -- although I will admit that when people ask me if I have children, my answer is almost always, "No." And I know my mother tells other people she has no grandchildren (which always hurts to hear, although I understand why she would say it -- for the same reason I do). But I would be terribly hurt if Katie were left out of any "official" family trees/counts.

I have seen many subsequent birth announcements in the newspaper, from previous clients of our support group. Some will mention the child they lost, among the relatives welcoming the new baby, which makes me smile. A few times, though, I've read "Husband and wife welcome their first child..." -- hmmmm. (Didn't they learn anything in group??) But it's really none of my business, is it?

In the book, women's relationships to higher power(s) are complicated. Jacob brings with him the one God, but that is not any of the gods of their childhoods. And it is to the gods of her family that Rachel calls with her simple and desperate ultimatum: "Give me children or I will die." In the context of your own relationship (or lack thereof) to a higher power, do you feel entitled to the same kind of an ultimatum?

I've never been one to issue ultimatums to God. I've never thought of him as an Old Testament type of wrathful God, mind you, but I've always been of the opinion that you catch more flies with sugar than vinegar. ; ) When it comes to conversations with God, I've always been more of the on-your-knees "please-please-please-please" beggar sort. And when my prayers weren't answered: "You & I are going to have a REALLY good talk about this someday...."

I've never believed that "everything happens for a reason" or that "God needed an angel," or any of the other religious platitudes that many bereaved mothers learn to love to hate. I do believe there is a God, and that he hears our prayers -- but sometimes, the answer is no.

After Katie's stillbirth, someone recommended "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" by Harold Kushner (a Jewish rabbi who lost his teenaged son to progeria) to me. I found it enormously comforting.

Dinah is awaited and welcomed by all of Jacob's wives. The one daughter, the one to carry all their stories, all their voices. In the context of the book it is a literary device that allows the author to tell us stories of Jacob's wives from their own perspectives. But what does it speak of to you? In your own life, have you felt, as Dinah does, a carrier of living memory? Do you feel your own voice to be better protected in the age of the blog, or do you see an enduring need for connection across generations?

Have you felt yourself to be a carrier of living memory? Oh, absolutely. Maybe because I am into genealogy & history (not to mention scrapbooking), but I have always loved hearing & preserving personal stories from the past. This story reminded me of how history has so often been told from the male perspective, and how many women's voices are missing throughout the ages. I feel so very fortunate to have copies of letters written by my great-great grandmother and her daughters, and I feel an obligation to ensure those stories are preserved and passed down to future generations -- if not for my own children, then my cousins' children and their descendants (someone is bound to find it of interest). It makes ancestors more real as a people to be able to read about their day to day lives in their own words.

Certainly, there is more awareness today that women's voices need to be heard and their stories told. As a childless woman, I feel a particular need to record aspects of my own story, since I won't have any sons or daughters to tell it for me when I'm gone. Blogging helps, but I have also kept my old paper journals & letters, etc. I just hope my nephews & my cousins' children will find my life, & what I had to say about the people & world around me, of some interest. Dinah's story gives me hope in that respect.

"The Red Tent" vividly describes the ritual Dinah's mother & aunts perform to celebrate her coming of age. Lately, I've been hearing about young girls being presented with cakes & gifts when they get their first periods. This was definitely NOT done when I was growing up! Describe your first period & your family's reaction (if any) -- how old were you, & how was the occasion marked (if at all)?

This was my question. I got my first period when I was 11. I can remember being excited, since this was a sign that I was growing up & soon to be a teenager (yahoo!)(if only I'd known, right??). But there were certainly no celebrations, or rituals, or cakes. I did mail away for a booklet from Kotex, & along with the booklet, they sent along some samples, as well as a free napkin belt. Back then, kiddies, (showing my age here), sanitary napkins had these long ends, & you had to hook them through the fasteners of an elastic belt -- kind of like a garter belt -- that you wore around your abdomen, to keep them secure. Thankfully, it wasn't too terribly long before adhesive pads were invented, & I was able to say goodbye (& good riddance) to belts.

The booklet I got had a calendar at the back where you could track your periods. I've being keeping track ever since then. 37 years. Yikes!!

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If you're curious to learn more about the book, visit Anita Diamant's website. She has a list of FAQs for The Red Tent that add further perspective to the story.

Hop along to another stop on this blog tour by visiting the main list at Stirrup Queens. You can also sign up for the next book on this online book club: Navigating the Land of If by the Stirrup Queen herself, Melissa Ford. Starts on May 27. Questions due June 24th. Posts go up on June 29th/30th.


  1. This was interesting. Thanks for writing.

  2. Thanks for sharing. I loved this book. I thought it was great writing and very powerful.

  3. I always enjoy reading your book reviews and answers. It sounds like a good book; I'll have to put it on my list.

  4. I should have read the early part of your post before I picked up this book the first time. My biblical knowledge is just a notch above what I learned from Cecil B. DeMille films. Thanks for filling in a bunch of blanks.

    Thanks, too, for making the point about how childless couples are often remembered by extended family. It reminded me of the younger sister of my grandfather. She died in her early 20s, never married. I remember her picture still ... I only wish I knew more about her.

  5. I have similar thoughts about family trees and also ultimatums and the idea of reason or purpose in these things. Someone recommended Kushner's book to me a while back and I found it so helpful and freeing, to find that there were people who believe in God yet didn't think these things happened for a reason. The idea that I lost babies for some higher reason or purpose has never sat right with me. It seemed cruel.

  6. Things were certainly clinical for us when we came of age, weren't they?

    I wish it had been more like moving from Brownies to Girl Scouts -- going over the bridge and having a party -- rather than "here are the biological reasons why this is happening, and here's what you do about it."

    Good review!

  7. Your review touched on many things I thought or felt while reading the book. Outstanding review.

  8. A wonderful post, as usual. So much to react to. If I talk about all of it, I might write you a post-length comment... Sop just a couple of things then.

    First, thank you for tackling both of my questions, particularly the higher power one. I am completely with you on the "happens for a reason." Never ever sat right with me. And it particularly bothers me when said by someone untouched by real tragedy. Seems like a privilege to be able to say that, privilege of the unafflicted.

    Second, you better believe that I too am bothered by the way some people (dis)count babies, though I believe that individual parents have the right to count their own children any way they see fit. So just yesterday I was at a celebration of a new baby, three weeks old now. This is a family where the first pregnancy was twins, but only one survived. They don't tend to talk about their missing son too much with family or most friends, I believe in large part because of how their family reacted when the boys were born. So yesterday, husband's cousin raises a toast to the second baby. The mother winced, just a tad. I wanted to punch out the idiot cousin. Because dude, there's a huge difference between not talking about that child, and actively erasing him by deleting him from the count. My blood is still boiling. I might yet say something.

  9. Horrific is an accurate description. I definitely found Simon and Levi's actions shocking as I was reading, since I remembered some other aspects of the Biblical story but had no memory of Dinah's story (or never registered it in the first place?).

  10. In regards to the family tree question, I feel the same way about baby announcements after the death. I think it's so important to mark the life--I am honoured to have Lennox and Zoe's up on our invitation/announcement board in the kitchen. I hope everyone is added to the family tree.

    I too am interested in genealogy and I feel like there is always one (or more) in each family who take that role. I think you do such a service for your family passing along what you have--your own story and the ones that came before you.