Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Red Tent

While browsing in Barnes & Noble just after Christmas, I saw The Red Tent obviously sitting on the shelf. The cover, which can sell me right now on a book, did not appeal to me. Rather, the title did. I had seen the title The Red Tent appear enough times in booktalk threads at TWTM, so I picked up the book and read the back. Ummm. Sounds interesting.

I like historical fiction. It gives me a perspective lacking in many history books. And it gives me something I cannot imagine on my own. I guess that's the quirky way my mind works. When I read much of history, somehow in my mind's eye, I fail to see the beauty of the landscape, to hear the birds scrabbling, to feel the coolness of the breeze blowing off the waterfall. But let me read a good historical fiction account, and I'm sold.

So I thought this would be an interesting and helpful book.

Interesting, yes. Well, kind of.

Helpful, no. At least not helpful in understanding the relationships The Red Tent involved.

Diamant does a decent job of reconstructing the historical landscape of the time. But, I think Diamant has taken the scope of the relationships within the book several steps beyond history. This is fiction. Pure and simple. (Yeah, I know it does not proclaim otherwise.) Besides using the character names found in the Old Testament account of Jacob's family, much of the writing is a reconstruction of revisionist Biblical history.

In many, many ways, I wish I had never read the book. I don't believe most of the reconstructed relationships she develops within the pages of this story, even for historical fiction. No doubt, much of the landscape-life that Diamant constructs was characteristic of life then. But no where have I ever read, or heard, that Rebecca (Diamant does not retain the Biblical spelling as Rebekah) was such a snooty, horrid, ill-acting woman who sacrificed baked goods to the "Queen of Heaven."

Or that Joseph favored young men to young ladies.

Or that Rachel used Laban's household gods as some sexual fettish.

It would have been better if I had not read the book. Even though it is fiction, it fictionalizes something I have deep respect and reverence for--the Word of God. The descriptions that are in my mind from The Red Tent can now tend to distort the true words I read from God's Word. It may be a long time before I can purge my mind's landscape of Diamant's Abraham and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah, and Joseph and eliminate those distortions and untruths.

The Biblical characters in Diamant's The Red Tent do not display a passing glance, much less a reverence, to the God of Scripture. I am not a better person for having read the book. I've never read, and never intend on reading, The Last Temptation of Christ. I know only enough about that book to know that it takes a historical person and distorts him into something he is not. In a similar way, I think that Diamant's book does the same. At least she's not messing around with the character of Christ.

Plus, I was rather repulsed by the amount of sexual description Diamant detailed. It's not a book for mothers to give to adolescent girls.

I must be floating in a different boat than the reviewers posting at Amazon with four and five stars for the book. There aren't too many books that I say I wish I had not read, but this is one of them.

Those of you who have read The Red Tent, I am interested in your take on the book. Some of you have told me that you would wait until I finished the book before having your say. Well, now that I've finished it and had my say, chime in!


sparrow said...

I felt much the way you did. I read it a couple of years ago and I still cannot get the "rite of passage" ritual out of my head. ewwww.

I, for one, am sick of the "goddess"-type fiction out there. A lot of the books I've seen recommended lately (that I've read) seem to center around feminist mysticism (does that make any sense?).

I especially dislike it when it messes with the Word, as you said.

Glad I'm not the only one! Thanks for posting your thoughts.

Patty in WA said...

I haven't read it. But I do appreciate your words that "it would have been better if I had not read it". I was struck this summer at a group play date with Christian moms who were talking about taking their very young children (and olders) to the latest Star Wars movie. All the justifications were "it won't hurt"; "it doesn't seem to bother him"; "he can handle it"; "all his friends are talking about it"--but not once was a different standard put out as the basis for the decision--"Whatever is pure, whatever is true, whatever is lovely, whatever is worthy of praise...". Not once. And isn't it a little sad that a movie like Star Wars III *doesn't* bother a 5yo?

High roads are harder to take but they offer a better view.

Carol in Oregon said...

Janie, I heartily concur with your review. My SIL gave it to me. A reading group from her church had read it. I would have never read it had it not been for receiving it as a gift. It disgusted me.

We recently studied Genesis in Sunday School and the life of Joseph is really an incredible picture of Christ.

As I read your review I was very, very thankful that my memory had not retained some of the details you mentioned. Sometimes being a Bear of Little Brain is helpful! What remains with me after reading The Red Tent is a general feeling of revulsion.

PariSarah said...

Well, it was so over-the-top in terms of "refuting" or rewriting the biblical story that I could just ignore that part. I read it more as an example of what certain kinds of feminists wish happened (or wish would happen now, or something like that).

I really enjoyed the actual writing--it was very rich, very evocative.

And I enjoyed, in a perverse kind of way, seeing that wishful-thinking version of the past. Feminists are just as guilty of idealizing their heroines and forcing their heroines into their perfect mold. It was kinda fun to see that perfect mold, that late-nineties feminist ideal.

I didn't take it very seriously.

Jenn said...

I am so glad I read your review. I tried starting it, but had an icky feeling about it and sent it back to the library. I think that too often, we underestimate fiction's ability to persuade and influence.

I read Queen Maker and felt much the way you described this book. It was well written, but it implied so much that was not biblical and it sticks in your head.