A Biblical Woman's Tale That Won Readers' Hearts

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When the novel "The Red Tent" by Anita Diamant was published in 1997, it was greeted with the book industry's ultimate kiss of death: silence.

As in no major reviews, no national advertising, no Oprah, no big signs in bookstore windows and nobody showing up at readings. The novel, based on the biblical story of Dinah, seemed destined to languish on dusty bargain-book tables.

Now, three years later, "The Red Tent" (Picador USA) is getting noticed big time. The paperback edition is in its ninth printing, with 235,000 copies sold, and has been on the Los Angeles Times paperback bestseller list for the last month. It has been translated into 10 languages. Movie producers want to do lunch. More and more book clubs are spreading the word about the novel.

"The Red Tent's" metamorphosis from an unknown to an unlikely star has made it an example of that extremely rare publishing phenomenon: word-of-mouth success.

"It was just one person telling another, telling another," says Michael Hewson, a manager at Barnes & Noble in Calabasas.

By giving a voice to Dinah, one of the silent female characters in Genesis, the novel has struck a chord with women who may have felt left out of biblical history. It celebrates mothers and daughters and the mysteries of the life cycle. The red tent of the title is a sanctuary, where women stay during menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth.

No one is more surprised by the book's still-growing popularity than Diamant, 48, who lives in suburban Boston. After the hardcover version appeared, she did a tour and ended up in a bookstore in the Valley for a reading.

"Who was there?" Diamant recalls. "Three people. My best friend from junior high, her mother and me."

Diamant was recently the featured speaker at a Women's Department fund-raiser at the Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance in West Hills. This time, there was a crowd of nearly 300. In other cities, her readings have attracted audiences of up to 900 people.

Diamant credits reading groups with making her novel the big seller that it is. Some of the nationwide buzz was generated by Mickey Pearlman of New Jersey, known as the "book club guru." A regular speaker at reading groups and author of "What to Read: The Essential Guide for Reading Group Members and Other Book Lovers" (Harper Collins), Pearlman frequently praises "The Red Tent" during her in-person and online talks.

"I really thought that this book was important and the perfect book for book clubs," she says. "It raises a lot of pivotal issues for women."

Another key player in the novel's rebirth was Diane Higgins, senior editor at Picador USA, who came on board after the original editor left the publishing house. Higgins felt the book deserved a second chance. With that in mind, she sent out hundreds of copies to rabbis, Protestant ministers and nuns and priests. As clergy praised the book from the pulpit, church and synagogue book clubs began to read it. At the same time, Diamant set out on an exhaustive tour, speaking at book fairs, fund-raisers, synagogues, churches and universities. It paid off.

"It's going wild," Higgins says. "The sales figures increase every week." In her 15 years in the publishing business, she says, she has never seen a novel gain so much momentum from word-of-mouth recommendations.

Initially, bookstores were caught off guard by the belated demand for "The Red Tent."

Barnes & Noble department manager Hewson read the book in December at the suggestion of a favorite customer. He liked it so much the store made it the employee pick for January. That's when Hewson noticed something strange.

"We'd have 10 copies on the shelf, and three days later you'd go to get it and there would not be one. Normally, when there are 10 copies of a book on the shelf, you don't even need to look it up on the computer. Nothing sells that fast . . . we had to keep upping our quantity that we kept in stock," he says.

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Not bad for a first-time novelist. Diamant was a writer of nonfiction works for more than 20 years before she decided to tackle a novel. She had just turned 40 and was looking for a new challenge. She knew she wanted to write fiction, but there was one problem, she says: "I did not have my own novel burning a hole in my pocket."

Having previously written on contemporary Jewish issues, she turned to the Bible for ideas and found what she was looking for in Genesis 34, one of the most problematic of biblical texts. It tells the brief and traumatic story of Dinah, the only daughter of Leah and Jacob.

"Dinah is the left-out one, the missing sister," says Miriyam Glazer, professor and head of the literature department at the University of Judaism. "Jacob had 12 sons, but he also had this daughter. . . . Much of Jewish tradition has been filling in the missing details. Women are drawn to fill in the missing details of Dinah's story."

In the English translation of the Old Testament provided by the Jewish Publication Society, Dinah "went out to visit the daughters of the land. Shechem, son of Hamor the Hivite, chief of the country, saw her and took her and lay with her by force." Afterward, Shechem declares his love for Dinah and seeks permission to marry her.

In Genesis 34, Dinah's brothers, Simeon and Levi, believe their sister was the victim of a violent assault, and they take revenge, killing Shechem and all the men of the city.

"The key question is, did she go willingly or was she raped?" says Glazer.

The language used in Genesis indicates that Dinah was violated, says Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, so she interprets that as a case of rape. She says that what is remarkable about the story is that Dinah is never blamed, despite the fact that in so many past and present cultures the victim of a sexual attack is shunned or punished.

"Dinah is voiceless in the Bible, she never says a word," Eskenazi says. "The great enigma in that story is, what was she thinking or feeling? We don't know."

It was Dinah's silence that sparked Diamant's imagination.

"Dinah does not say a single word in the Bible, and that created an opening for me. So I gave her a voice for 321 pages."

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In Diamant's fictional account, Dinah is not raped but falls in love with the son of Hamor (called Shalem in the novel) and goes willingly with him. Diamant knows that there are some readers, including Christians and Jews, who are disturbed by her interpretation of the story.

"My intention was to tell a good story," she says. "It's not Bible commentary, although it is based on a Bible story. . . . It's not a feminist tract, but I think it comes out of my sensibilities as a feminist."

Diamant did extensive research to learn as much as she could about the details of daily life in the ancient world depicted in "The Red Tent." She approached it as an anthropologist would, looking for information about food, clothing, work and family structure. She used poetic license to fill in the missing pieces.

Although she did not find evidence of a menstrual tent at that time or place in history, such tents have existed in pre-modern cultures. The secrets within the tent are a central focus of the novel.

"The red tent is a dramatic metaphor of women's experience," says Wendy Martin, a professor of literature at Claremont Graduate University. "Diamant really conveys the sense that life is sacred and precious and to be cherished, and it's life brought forth by women."

The theme of women helping women hit home with the West Hills staff and volunteers at the Jewish Federation as they planned their annual fund-raiser for community programs. When they discovered they all had read and loved "The Red Tent," its author seemed an ideal choice as a speaker. As word got out that Diamant would be there, members of book groups asked for invitations. Acceptances poured in, even with the minimum donation requirement of $365.

At the event, Diamant looked out at the crowd of 300, mostly women, and asked how many in the audience already had read "The Red Tent." Nearly every person there raised a hand.

Diamant's admirers don't hesitate to offer suggestions, often asking her to write about other biblical women, such as Esther and Miriam.

But Diamant's not so sure.

"Right now, I really need to do something different."

Until May, she will continue to give readings and sign autographs. After that, she is going back to work on her new novel, a contemporary story about friendship. Chances are, when this book appears, it won't be greeted by silence.

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