I recently red The Red Tent by Anita Diamant for the first time, and as I suspected, I couldn’t put it down once I got started. It was originally published in 1997, so I’m admittedly late to the party, but I was impressed by this book from cover to cover.
I don’t want to give anything away in case anybody else has been hiding under a rock for the past nineteen years and has managed to not read this book already, but the basic premise is that it’s a historical fiction retelling of the biblical story of Jacob, but from the perspective of his only daughter Dinah. I’m no biblical scholar, so I can’t compare it to the original source, but I love musical theater, so I had some frame of reference for the character of Jacob and his sons from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. (I’m pretty sure all of my Catholic school religious ed teachers would have a collective fit if they saw that sentence – lol. Seriously, I can’t stop laughing right now. Thanks, Andrew Lloyd Webber.)
Ok, so my failings as a Catholic school girl aside, Diamant wove a beautiful tale that focused on the often overlooked women of the Bible, using the red tent as a focal point. In the book, Jacob’s wives are four sisters – Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah – who live their lives inextricably interwoven with the women around them. The red tent is a ritual space where they meet while undergoing the common experiences of womanhood, such as menstruation and childbirth.
Childbirth is a common thread throughout the book, so there are multiple midwives, from Jacob’s wife Rachel to Dinah herself when she is older. As a non-practicing doula, the birth scenes were bittersweet. They were in some ways so familiar, and it was reassuring to think of childbirth being, in many ways, so consistent from biblical times to today. On the other hand, it made me really, really miss my work and the sense of purpose I always feel while supporting a laboring mother. It’s uniquely fulfilling work.
However, what I found myself returning to time and time again throughout this book was the permanence of the women’s relationships, even in the face of extremely awkward situations. Like sharing a husband, for example.
To be fair, the husband and wife relationship is significantly different. It is highly patriarchal – more than the equal partnership we strive for nowadays – and the daily work of husband and wife is so separate that the women spend much more time with one another than they do with their husbands. That said, there is certainly still jealousy. It is mentioned multiple times in the book that Leah and Rachel usually choose to avoid each other when possible, but whenever there is a particular conflict – such as a birth – they inevitably support each other.
It made me think a lot about the disposable nature of relationships in our modern culture. I am a big believer in moving on from relationships that no longer serve you, so there was a part of me that was both fascinated and incredulous to read about women having no choice but to participate in these complex, emotionally fraught sister/friend/wife/aunt/co-parent relationships. There was no throwing your hands up in the air and saying, “This sucks. I’ll get divorced and find a husband who’s not married to my sister.” It didn’t work that way. So they had to stay and find a way to manage.
I’m certainly not saying that that way was better. I can’t honestly imagine living like that. However, the flip side is that these women had lifelong bonds with the women around them, and how often do you hear about that anymore? As much jealousy as there was, these women were always surrounded by a support network. In many ways Rachel can’t stand Leah, but when Rachel can’t breastfeed her baby, Leah is there to act as a wet nurse and keep her baby alive. It’s all so terribly, beautifully messy and complicated.
The book offers no answers to these hard questions, except to hint at an eventual sense of peace between Leah and Rachel. Ultimately, it’s a work of fiction, so it’s the author’s interpretation of events with limited historical resources. But I’d already been contemplating how, in the past, relationships were not always so easy to shrug off whenever they became inconvenient. People haven’t always moved so far away from home, and in some ways their social circles were both larger and smaller. They didn’t have hundreds of “friends” on Facebook, but they probably knew everybody in their immediate community much better than we do today.
Having left some relationships in the past – and feeling healthier for it – it’s hard to imagine how my life would be different if I’d been forced to navigate those muddy waters. But if we want to build stronger communities in our modern society – create some semblance of a modern “village” – we need to seriously look at how people have managed conflict in the past, when they had little choice but to work things out. How did they learn to tolerate the awkwardness that is now so intolerable?
Have you read The Red Tent? What lessons or questions did you take from it?