by Anna Yoder
We have been lost to each other for so long.
It was that first line from Anita Diamant’s novel The Red Tent pulled me in immediately; it was as if an ancient voice from the past had finally found me.
The Red Tent tells the story of Jacob’s only daughter, Dinah, who is barely mentioned in the Old Testament save a few lines about her being raped and her brothers’ bloody revenge. Told from her perspective, Dinah begins her tale by saying, “There was far more to tell. Had I been asked to speak of it, I would have begun with the story of the generation that raised me, which is the only place to begin. If you want to understand any woman you must first ask about her mother and the listen carefully…The more a daughter knows the details of her mother’s life – without flinching or whining – the stronger the daughter.”
For generations, stories of women were often left out of the history books. In the beginning part of the novel, Dinah highlights the important of carrying on the stories of the women in her family, which I think rings true to real life. Even though The Red Tent is clearly fabricated since very little is known about Dinah, it made me ponder just how many stories and perspectives have been lost through out our history and the history of our faith because women’s stories were not told.
Again, in the introduction, the voice of Dinah says, “I wish I had more to tell of my grandmothers. It is terrible how much as been forgotten, which is why, I supposed, remembering seems a holy thing.”
Throughout the novel, childbearing seems ever present. Not only because Jacob’s wives produce so many children, but rather it is what binds these women together. It is Rachel, who after failing again and again to give Jacob a long line of sons, finds meaning in becoming a mid-wife. By working with her hands, she helps women usher life into the world in the way that she herself cannot. Eventually, Dinah becomes an assistant for her aunt and learns the trade as well. People from far and wide know of Rachel and Dinah’s skills at midwifery and seek their assistant when the time comes.
Even though childbearing is a major theme in this novel, I believe it is about so much for than that. I am constantly drawn in by the strength of these women. During a time when women had no rights and were not valued beyond their ability to produce sons, they still found ways to pass along their stories and their strengths.
Although the birth of their sons is more pleasing to their husband, when Dinah is born all of Jacob’s wives are excited. They are relieved that they all finally have a daughter. Now, they have someone who they can teach, who they can adore and who will remember them and carry their stories long after they have passed away.
Daughters eased their mother’s burdens – helping with the spinning, the grinding of grain, the endless task of looking after baby boys, who were forever peeing into the corners of tents, no matter what you told them.
But the other reason women wanted daughters was to keep their memories alive. Sons did not hear their mothers’ stories long after weaning. So I was the one. My mother and my mother-aunties told me endless stories about themselves. No matter what their hands were doing- holding babies, cooking spinning, weaving – they filled my ears.
When I think about hands, I think about strong women, who, for thousands of years, did not have a voice. I think about the legacy they left for their daughters, despite their silenced stories. I am blessed by the women in my family who have left me such a legacy and who filled me with stories, no matter what their hands were doing. And now, whatever my hands find to do, whenever I remember to share hospitality, to live with grace, and to have a servant’s heart, I am not only seeking to follow Christ, but I am also remembering. I am keeping our stories alive.
* (Please note that even though I love The Red Tent, I recommend it with caution, as this novel deals with sexual themes at various times.)