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'The Red Tent' Has Regaled Readers for 17 Years, and It Remains as Powerful as Ever

Anita Diamant’s storytelling is exceptional. There’s something here for everyone in a work which is an unquestioned masterpiece of historical fiction.

The Red Tent

Publisher: Picador
Length: 352 pages
Author: Anita Diamant
Price: $16.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2014-11 (re-issue)

The beautifully striking cover art of Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent is by now easily recognizable in bookstores new and used around the world. This Fall it received a facelift, as Picador issued a new cover to coincide with the novel’s movie tie-in edition.

Regardless of cover, one of the most remarkable things about the book, besides the creative retelling of its subject matter, is the manner of its slow and steady success.

Although originally published in 1997, it didn’t actually become a bestseller until almost four years later. How does a book creep along in print for years before becoming a bestseller? A 2001 article in Ms. Magazine attributes it to the power of ‘hand-selling’; the appreciation and promotion of books by independent booksellers and other literary actors (for instance book clubs), which manage to propel a book into the limelight even without the support of the mainstream publishing industry. ("The Red Tide", by Patricia Holt, Oct-Nov 2001). Such success stories are few and far between, and one might fear the demise of independent bookstores and surge of online sellers could mean the end of them. Still, the slow, surprising success of some self-published authors (Darcie Chan’s best-selling debut novel The Mill River Recluse, Amanda Hocking’s Trylle trilogy), and the recent resurgence of interest in Marian Engel’s unlikely 1976 tale of Bear erotica, coupled with Diamant’s now canonical literary status, suggests that writers might still hold faith for such ‘faint hope’ outcomes that defy established industry norms.

Others attribute the book’s success to Diamant taking matters into her own hands. When its first run failed to sell or even garner reviews in the major papers, it looked like a paperback version wouldn’t even be issued. Unsold hardcovers were slated for destruction by the publisher. At that point Diamant, a journalist herself, developed her own strategy. Confident in the book’s potential to attract interest among a spiritually-invested audience, she had her editor sent copies of the book to hundreds of rabbis and ministers (including almost 1,500 female Reform rabbis). She also promoted the book herself, giving talks at bookstores and meeting with book club organizers.

Her tactics had the desired effect: reviews began to appear, religious leaders began either recommending or denouncing the book, women and readers in the broader community took interest, and the rest, as they say, is history. By the end of 2000 this grassroots, guerrilla marketing campaign had propelled the book onto the New York Times bestseller list; in early 2001 it became a number one Los Angeles Times bestseller. There are now millions of copies in print, in 28 languages.

But The Red Tent hasn’t reached its apotheosis yet, apparently. More than 15 years after its initial publication, it’s set to hit the airwaves as a mini-series featuring a star-studded cast including Rebecca Ferguson, Minnie Driver, Iain Glen, and more. This latest act in The Red Tent’s remarkable life-cycle is set to debut on 7 December on the Lifetime network.

A Story That Needed Telling

There’s no doubt about it: The Red Tent is a magnificent story. Diamant brilliantly identified the makings of a perfect novel in that single spot, Genesis Chapter 34 in the Old Testament, where Dinah, daughter of Jacob, is mentioned. The daughters and concubines, and other hangers-on of Jacob’s uncle Laban (who is depicted as a lecherous, lazy patriarch) provide fertile ground for the depiction of engaging characters and complex relationships. The historical backdrop is riveting, too: the daily lives of the women and the entire encampment are presented in well-researched and beautifully written prose.

When Jacob comes stumbling out of the wilderness, seeking refuge, the appearance of this driven, ambitious, and handsome young man throws the delicate equilibrium of the camp hierarchy and the sisters’ relationships with each other awry. And though Jacob is depicted in heroic terms at the outset, with sisters competing for his affections, his shine gradually fades as his clan grows over the years. Likewise, the second generation of his family, Dinah and the other children born to Jacob and his wives, creates for even more complex relationships amid struggles for authority and pride.

(Warning: spoilers ahead!) Those who have read their Bible or Torah know how the story turns out in those tellings. Dinah is kidnapped and raped by a Canaanite prince, and her brothers rescue her and slay the Canaanites. It’s here that Diamant applies her most creative twist: Dinah in fact falls in love with and marries the Canaanite prince, and it’s her avaricious and treacherous brothers who violate the marriage agreement, murder the Canaanites and kidnap her back to their family.

Consumed with sorrow, but also pregnant with the prince’s child, Dinah escapes her family and eventually winds up in Egypt. Her son is raised in a royal environment and she falls in love again, but her brother Joseph’s arrival and ascent in Egypt forces her to finally come to terms with the family she rejected; one in which she first experienced such love, and then such violent horror.

Diamant’s storytelling is exceptional, and whether one is attracted by the imagination of the plot, the historical detail she brings to life, or the rich and engrossing relationships between the women of the family, there’s something here for everyone in a work which is an unquestioned masterpiece of historical fiction.

Consent and Complexity

Diamant’s portrayal of Dinah’s relationship with Shechem (the Canaanite prince) as a consensual, romantic one has sparked both praise and criticism. On the one hand, it portrayed Dinah as an active agent in her own life, pursuing her own sexual partner and her own future. The acts of her brothers (and Jacob’s impotent failure to intervene) are themselves depicted as constituting the act of patriarchal violation: they were not rescuing her, they were crushing her self-determined future and asserting their own control over her.

This re-telling has been received positively by many readers. As Vladimir Tumanov put it in a 2007 article for the Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, "Dinah's Rage", Diamant “builds her tragic heroine by “deobjectifying” her, i.e., by turning Dinah into a subject with a complex world of feelings”.

Others reacted negatively, and for varied reasons. For some, retelling a tale of rape as one of romance carried the implication that “No means No. Unless you're writing historical fiction.” That’s the view of Rabbi Avram Rothman, an Ontario-based rabbi (with a PhD in Comparative Literature) who published a very critical review in the Jewish online magazine in 2001, "The Red Tent". While his critique starts out with the suggestion that Diamant’s book undermines messaging about consent in sexual relationships, however, it rapidly spirals into a defense of Judaism’s patriarchs: “We cannot accept that our forefathers, even in fiction, could be petty, could be murderers, could be willing to throw away the relationship they fought so hard for with the Almighty.”

Tumanov’s analysis is more complex. He contrasts the character of Dinah as portrayed in The Red Tent with her portrayal in Thomas Mann’s classic, Jacob and his Brothers. He begins by questioning contemporary understandings of what sort of relationship The Torah was trying to convey. He notes that what’s been translated into English as ‘rape’ throughout the Old Testament, is actually expressed using a variety of different words in old Hebrew. He suggests that it’s not linguistically accurate to translate all of these words as ‘rape’, since some might have intended to convey other forms of sexual relationships. This is essentially the approach adopted by Mann in his novel, Tumanov explains, where Dinah is not kidnapped and raped by Shechem, but is a hapless, and still objectified victim, in a marriage exchange between Shechem and her brothers. She is still a disempowered victim, but in a different sense from the typical Biblical version. Diamant, of course, offers an entirely different presentation, in which Dinah is a proactive agent in a romantic relationship.

The film is sure to renew debate around Diamant's unique re-telling. A recent review article in Haaretz, "The Red Tent: Biblical rape turned Harlequin romance" noted as much in the article title. The truth of an incident that occurred thousands of years ago, if at all, will likely never be known with certainty. But examples such as these demonstrate the power with which differing contemporary interpretations can be used to frame debates around gender, action and agency atop a historical canvas.

Diamant herself, in a study guide published to accompany the book, made her own motives quite clear: “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.”

Sound vaguely feminist? Diamant, in an epilogue to the tenth anniversary edition of the book, is loud and clear on the question: yes. "When I am asked if I consider myself a feminist, the question is usually couched within some sort of apology, as though the word itself is an insult. I am as proud to be called a feminist as I am to be called a Jew, or an American. Feminism is an indivisible part of who I am, and I remain mystified by the stigma that has been attached to the idea that women are human beings."

Sandra Polaski, whose study of the work, Inside the Red Tent, was published by Chalice Press in 2006, suggests that the book’s appeal lies in the fact that it’s “more uplifting and hopeful than it is shocking and painful.” Partly, she says, this is “because Dinah reveals that her sexual encounter was a consensual relationship, not a rape.” More broadly, however, she writes “The Red Tent is hopeful and uplifting because it offers an alternative view of what many Bible readers have often imagined was the lonely and miserable life of early biblical women. In place of isolated drudgery or bitter wrangling it depicts women who share their lives together, fully experiencing joy and sorrow. They love one another deeply, even when their shared circumstances mean that they cause one another pain… The compelling nature of this community of women is the main reason The Red Tent has found such an enthusiastic following.”

A Literary and Living Phenomenon

The Red Tent has indeed found a following. In addition to the book clubs which were instrumental in the novel’s success, it’s inspired graduate theses, documentary films, and even sparked a movement of women’s empowerment groups calling themselves ‘red tents’. Many of these activities are outlined on the independently operated

Red Tent Women’s Project website.

After years of rumours and speculation, the book is finally receiving the film treatment in the form of a two-part miniseries set to air on the Lifetime network.

The mini-series comes during a hot season for biblical dramas. In addition to Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, also featuring a prolific cast including Christian Bale and Sigourney Weaver and hitting US theatres on 12 December 12, Fox is working on a mini-series Nazareth about Jesus’ early years, while NBC is producing AD: Beyond the Bible, about the period immediately after Jesus’ death. CBS is also working on a period mini-series: Dovekeepers will be based on the siege of Masada, a fortress defended by Jewish rebels against a far superior Roman army.

Diamant has said she had no hand in the television adaptation, but in that aforementioned recent interview with Amy Klein in Haaretz, she sounded positive about the result: “I’m really happy with how they maintained the celebration of women’s ability and the importance of their relationships with each other.” And in another recent interview with The Jerusalem Post, "Pitching the 'Red Tent'", she reminded viewers, “The book honors the work of women’s hands... I don’t think of this as a Jewish movie and never have.” Either way, it’s a sure bet that fans of the book will be watching with anticipation to see their favourite and reviled characters come to life on the screen.

The Red Tent, filmed in Morocco, features Morena Baccarin (Firefly, Homeland), Minnie Driver (About a Boy), Rebecca Ferguson (The White Queen), Iain Glen (Game of Thrones), Will Tudor (Game of Thrones), and Debra Winger (Terms of Endearment). It’ll air in two parts on the Lifetime network, 7 and 8 December.

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