The Red Tent: AP English Literature Choice “Chick Book”

November 14, 2013 — Leave a comment

red tentMany of my students do not know Old Testament stories other than “Noah’s Ark” and “Adam and Eve”. There is the occasional biblical teen scholar who may be able to recount the origin a pillar of salt (Lot’s wife) or maybe there will be a student who saw the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and make a patriarchal connection. For the most part, students are not up to date on Methuselah or even which of the brothers killed the other (Cain or Abel). They are far more likely to ask, “So, where did all the other people come from if Eve was the only woman?”

Fortunately, The Red Tent, a novel by Anita Diamant (1997) does address other women of the Old Testament. Her fictionalized version of the story of Dinah, daughter of Leah and Jacob, is based on in a brief but particularly violent and gruesome incident in the Book of Genesis. In the King James Version of the Bible, Dinah is known as the daughter who is “defiled” by Shechem, a prince, who then wanted to marry her (Genesis 34: 1-3):

1 And Dinah the daughter of Leah, which she bare unto Jacob, went out to see the daughters of the land.

2 And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, prince of the country, saw her, he took her, and lay with her, and defiled her.

3 And his soul clave unto Dinah the daughter of Jacob, and he loved the damsel, and spake kindly unto the damsel.

Dinah’s brothers, sought vengeance for the attack on their sister. They tricked Shechem and his family, claiming to come in peace, and exacted their punishment by killing the royal family and all males in the city:

26 And they slew Hamor and Shechem his son with the edge of the sword, and took Dinah out of Shechem’s house, and went out.

27 The sons of Jacob came upon the slain, and spoiled the city, because they had defiled their sister.

This horrific incident is explained very differently in the Diamant’s fictional retelling, as are many other familial incidents, from Dinah’s point of view. The rivalry between Rachel and Leah, the rivalry between Jacob and Esau, and the rivalry between the sons of Joseph, Dinah’s younger brother, are rich with detail and dialogue. The sparse accounts given in the Old Testament are fleshed out in this compelling narrative, with the women center stage, a striking contrast to the male-dominated biblical text.

Several of my female students in Advanced Placement English Literature choose to read The Red Tent as an independent choice, and their response is not unlike other female student responses chronicled in the article “The Wandering Womb at Home in The Red Tent: An Adolescent Bildungsroman in a Different Voice” by Holly Blackford. In this review, Blackford writes about the female students’ enthusiasm for the book:

So emotional about the story of The Red Tent that they can barely speak, and indeed continually interrupt one another, they cite the way in which the contemporary novel revises the patriarchal story of Jacob; represents the concerns of girls in terms of emotion and relationship; and details the entire lifecycle of girl-to-woman through engaging first-person narration:
  Carol: There are certain books I just can’t put down.
      Laticia: Seriously, I’ll read until like three in the morning . . .
      Interviewer: Like what?
      Carol: Like The Red Tent!

Blackford also points out that this revision of an ancient text  comes at a time when girls are, “hungering for an exploration of female-centered myths, deities, worlds, and power-structures.” Her claim in The Alan Review (March, 2005) is that books like The Red Tent:

“… appeal to adolescent women and grow their appreciation for contemporary women’s literature that speaks “in a different voice” (Gilligan) from the more masculine canon they expect in their school curriculum.”

There are about 20 copies of The Red Tent on the class independent book cart, all purchased at book sales for $1.00 each. Picador USA publishers produced an oversized text, about 2″ taller than a standard trade paperback; on the AP English Lit book cart’s top shelf, these copies stick out. The cover art, designed and illustrated by Honi Werner, is also eye-catching. Students always pick up the book with interest.

“What’s this about?” one asks.
“Read the back,” I reply.
“‘...told in Dinah’s voice, this novel reveals the traditions and turmoil of ancient womanhood-the world of the red tent,’ (*pause suspiciously*)…is this a ‘chick book’?”
“Yes,” I chuckle, “this is most definitely a chick book….probably the ultimate chick book, of ALL chick books.”

How else to describe a story that centers on celebrating the onset of womanhood?

After they read any independent book, the AP students are required to write an essay. The essay prompt this quarter for any book they choose is taken from the AP released exam list of questions:

In retrospect, the reader often discovers that the first chapter of a novel or the opening scene of a drama introduces some of the major themes of the work. Write an essay about the opening of the first chapter of a novel in which you explain how it functions in this way. *hint: the lens you use is the lens from the conclusion of the novel*

Students who choose to read Diamant’s The Red Tent will certainly want to return to the beginning to explain how Dinah’s life story begins and ends with the women who loved and supported her.  They will also have had a “crash course” on the Book of Genesis, which is the source of many other literary allusions. While The Red Tent is not great literature, this novel sets many female students looking for equally compelling contemporary novels about women, with or without that “chick book” label.

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