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Why is Everyone Reading The Red Tent?

-A Secret for Julia, by Patricia Sagastizabal
- Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood, by Sandra Steingraber
- Lili: A Novel of Tiananmen, by Annie Wang
-Interracial Intimacy: The Regulation of Race and Romance, by Rachel F. Moran
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A lot of "experts" in the book industry are puzzling over the latest phenomenon in quirky reader trends: that is, why has The Red Tent by fiction newcomer Anita Diamant, first published in 1997, suddenly begun showing up on best-seller lists in 2001? The term "showing up" doesn't begin to describe the book's new staying power: The Red Tent hit the New York Times Paperback Best Seller list early this year and has firmly held there for more than six months. Book clubs love it. Publishers in 20 countries have bought translation rights. Women's studies courses are adopting it, and with no let-up in sales, The Red Tent shows every sign of becoming a minor classic in U.S. fiction. Why its new "legs," as they say? In some ways, the answer is simple: like Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes and Barbara Kingsolver's The Bean Trees, Diamant's first novel was not a big seller in chain bookstores and might have gone unnoticed if it hadn't been for independent booksellers who personally recommended it to their customers.

"I didn't know what the word 'hand-selling' meant," Diamant told independent booksellers at their yearly BookExpoAmerica convention held this summer, "until I met Sarah Zacks of Books on the Square four years ago in Providence, Rhode Island. My book had disappeared in the big chains, but it was displayed in the front area of independent bookstores like hers."

Certainly women are the target audience for Diamant's book, says Jason Smith of Transitions Bookplace, a Chicago store that specializes in books on spirituality. "Women readers dominate the spirituality marketplace," he notes. "They buy about eighty percent of the books in this category—so if any book is going to be singled out, it's The Red Tent.

"But I think a reason it's doing so well is that you might say we live in a world of grab-bag spirituality today-readers take a yoga class in the morning, practice Zen meditation in the afternoon, and attend church events later in the week. At the same time, as much as we see a widening of spiritual interests, America is still a Christian nation, and any time you have a story that's anchored in Western spirituality and historical detail, it's going to have an appeal.

"But we can never forget when talking about trends what really sells a book, and that is good writing. The Red Tent is the classic case of a good story well-told. My mom has read it, my sister's read it, and happily they, too, are out there spreading the word."

So while a lot of books are sleepers—they start out submerged, with little promotion or critical attention, then begin to surface through bookstore support, book clubs, and word-of-mouth-it's safe to say that few strike a nerve so deep and abiding as The Red Tent.

Although a familiar Bible story forms the basis of the novel, we quickly learn that Diamant is not interested in a simple retelling of the Old Testament tale of Leah and Rachel, two of the four sisters who marry Jacob.

"The biblical story that pits two sisters against one another never sat right with me," she says. "The traditional view of Leah as the ugly and/or spiteful sister, and of Jacob as indifferent to her, seemed odd in light of the fact that the Bible gives them nine children together."

Particularly compelling to Diamant is the one surviving daughter of Jacob and Leah. This is Dinah (pronounced Dee-nah), who in Chapter 34 of the Book of Genesis—"The Rape of Dinah"—is given sketchy description and allowed no voice at all. "Her total silence cried out for explanation," Diamant says, "so I decided to imagine one."

It was a big step for Diamant, whose reputation in the publishing world was as a successful author of six nonfiction books about contemporary Jewish life, including Choosing a Jewish Life, The New Jewish Wedding, and How to Be a Jewish Parent.

But now she has turned toward the biblical story of Dinah with the ferocity of one of the characters she's created. As a library fellow at Radcliffe College, Diamant studied "the food, clothing, social organization, architecture, and medicine of the ancient Near East" (around 1500 b.c.e.) at the Radcliffe, Harvard, and Brandeis libraries, concentrating on the telling details that can so dramatically place readers inside the life of a particular period.

"The everydayness of giving care, of feeding and clothing families and each other is the center of The Red Tent," she says. "It values that part of women's experience. In the ancient world, we feel the continuity, the femaleness of trying to be pregnant or of avoiding pregnancy, of considering a life in the body, that kind of universal thing. While a couple of love stories do exist, they're played out against the backdrop of the women's culture, the wholeness of it, the valuing of female relationships—sister, friend, mother, daughter—in a way that was separate from the men."

Thus Diamant re-creates the tent city of Jacob's sheepherding family—his four wives and many children, his shepherds and bondswomen, his slaves and artisans, his barbarous father-in-law Laban, and, eventually, his vengeful sons.

The dust and heat of the surrounding desert; the household gods worshipped by the women (as opposed to Jacob's one god); the daily sacrifices, romances, and marriages; and, most precious to Dinah, the place where women were sequestered during menstruation, childbirth, illness, and death (the red tent) become so familiar in their sounds and senses that increasingly we feel at home there, too.

When asked why Diamant's book is selling so well, one bookseller looked up from shelving books and blushed to say, not so jokingly, "Well, that tent ain't red for nothing."

How true. The one taboo that bridges our modern world with that biblical one—or so we think at the beginning—is menstruation, and so a tent that's unapologetically and blatantly called the red tent startles and thrills us at the same time.

And did it exist historically? "We know that menstrual tents and huts were all over the world in various premodern societies," Diamant says. "I have no evidence that something formal called the red tent existed during Dinah's life. So I made it up. The rendering of what happened inside that tent is entirely my own creation."

Well now, how delectable. You just know that in a patriarchal society where, as Diamant shows, women aren't allowed to speak when men are talking or even look men straight in the eye, and where all decisions must be made by men (even if women really do make them and have to implore or cajole the men into pretending the decisions are theirs), just walking into that tent at the end of the day is going to be a relief and a comfort.

"Readers begin to feel a part of this sacred sisterhood. Customers talk about that all the time."

And since women must hide the wisdom they have gained over generations, it is only in that sacred place that all the mysteries and the secrets—and the gossip, fears, and hopes—they have withheld from the outside will be revealed and exchanged.

So it is in the red tent that we see all the secrets that stretch across the centuries—how women fend off unwanted sexual advances by altering men's food; how they use herbs to abort or delay conception; how they attend, rather than control, childbirth for the greater safety of mother and baby; and, most of all, how they regard menstruation not as "a curse" or a lifetime of cramps but as a blessing to be celebrated.

When Rachel, for example, begins menstruating, she is led into the red tent by her loving, cooing elders, who cover her head "with the finest embroidery," and her arms and feet with "every bangle, gem, and jewel that could be found."

The women sing "all the welcoming songs," and they pour for Rachel "as much sweet wine as she could hold." They offer her a "fine wheat-flour cake, made in the three-cornered shape of woman's sex" (this book is so bawdy!). They allow her to "laze in the tent for three days" and collect her "precious fluid" in a bronze bowl, "for the first-moon blood of a virgin was a powerful libation for the garden."

So it is in the red tent that monthly blood is seen as a gift that "courses through us, cleansing the body of last month's death, preparing the body to receive the new month's life," Leah tells Dinah. Women give thanks there "for repose and restoration, for the knowledge that life comes from between our legs, and that life costs blood."

No wonder "readers begin to feel a part of this sacred sisterhood," says Sarah Wingfield of Book Passage in Corte Madera, California. "Customers talk about that all the time."

And they talk about it to Diamant. "At signings and readings, I'll look up to see three and even four generations of women, all with the book in hand. It never occurred to me that fourteen-year-olds would read it, but they do, and often for the same reasons their grandmothers and great-grandmothers do. It's that sense of connection, that intergenerational appeal."

Perhaps, too, there is a sense of returning to a "primitive" time and finding out something new—or timeless—about ourselves. "It's sort of magical for readers of today," says Randy Rick of The Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver. "We learn to dispense with the judgments we've picked up and to take Diamant's world for what it is.

"Reading this book is like traveling to an older culture and going to a village where women are not wearing miniskirts, for example. Do you say, 'These women are oppressed,' or do you get to know them on their own terms? You could waste time trying to change their opinions, or you could learn a lot by getting to know the community and understanding its strengths."

The fact that Dinah is the one who not only finds her voice but tells the entire story—hers, Rachel's, Leah's, and the others—makes The Red Tent not only alluring, but audacious, suspenseful, and thrilling all at once.

In the Bible, we are told very little: Dinah is raped; Jacob's sons take their revenge. But in The Red Tent, where sex as both idea and practice is known and felt, listened to, joked about, and is an acknowledged presence in everyday life, Dinah's personal story becomes fully, deeply, and richly explored.

Since she is the only female offspring of Jacob and his four wives, Dinah is allowed inside the red tent even before she begins menstruating. No longer the silenced voice of the Bible, she becomes the chosen daughter, to whom all women's knowledge is conveyed.

Few are the readers—women or men—who won't identify with Dinah, or realize that in the world as envisioned by Diamant, Dinah may not have been raped, but actually had the daring to choose her own lover.

But another compelling reason the book is a best-seller is the fact that Dinah performs an act of "counterhistory," as Diamant puts it. "Until recently, men and women inhabited quite different cultures," she says. "Wisdom in the men's community was passed on but not shared. While men and women were deeply involved with each other, men didn't come home and talk about their day. They lived in interdependent but separate universes. History has come to value the male culture more than the female, so Dinah's narrative offers the story not told as much."

And this is what readers seem to value most. Because we come to live in the red tent and love Dinah and the women who teach her about womanhood, we believe what she says. No more is menstruation "disgusting, filthy, and private," wrote one customer to Rather, it is "a monthly reminder for all women that their bodies are beautiful temples of creation."

B Patricia Holt writes an e-mail column about the book industry called "Holt Uncensored" (

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