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Monday, May 25, 2009

Book Tour #18: The Red Tent

Though it was simply the luck of the draw, it was especially fitting that this book turned out to be the 18th selection of the Barren Bitches Book Brigade. Eighteen is a special number in Judaism, symbolizing life (the word for life--chai--adds up to the number 18).

The difficulty of any novel set in a familiar space is making it new, and Anita Diamant constantly takes the reader out of the Bible and into her own imagination of life during that time period. She gives a voice to a character in the Bible who doesn't have a voice--Dinah--and the women in her novel are, as Diamant states, "active agents in their own lives, not passive pawns or victims."

I think what I love best about this book is the story I found on Diamant's site about its origins. It had few reviews in major outlets and almost no advertising budget. It's success was entirely in the hands of the early readers and I think that's a pretty powerful statement about the story and the writing.

The family trees shown at the beginning of the book don't include miscarriages, stillbirths, or children who died before weaning. Given the rate of infant mortality at the time, this was a logical method for "counting" children. Now that it's much more rare (but still too common) to lose children both before and after birth, at what point do you think children should be added to the official family tree? At what point should they be added to the parents' personal tally of children?

I kept coming back to this question so I guess I should probably try to answer it. In order to examine the question, I had to remove the idea of the state of medical care (or loss rates) or how often it occurred in Biblical times vs. now. The general population may have a numerical rate of occurrence, but the fact of the matter is that it's 100% when it happens to you.

I really struggled to pin down a date and started as far out as possible. Anyone born alive was obviously added to the family tree. Anyone born still but over the age of viability I added to the tree. And then I started to work my way down, finally settling on ten weeks in utero. Somewhat a random distinction, but it's the start of the fetal period.

Like so many aspects of infertility or loss, my emotional side and political side were at odds.

Dinah is awaited and welcomed by all of Jacob's wives. The one daughter, the one to carry all their stories, all their voices. In the context of the book it is a literary device that allows the author to tell us stories of Jacob's wives from their own perspectives. But what does it speak of to you? In your own life, have you felt, as Dinah does, a carrier of living memory? Do you feel your own voice to be better protected in the age of the blog, or do you see an enduring need for connection across generations?

This is such an interesting question because blogs do pass along our thoughts and voice in this very public manner, placing pieces of ourselves for others to carry. It's not just the twins who will carry my stories to the next generation--all of you will carry my stories as well. I think I'm more interested in how others see themselves (as a carrier or as a giver).

"The Red Tent" vividly describes the ritual Dinah's mother & aunts perform to celebrate her coming of age. Lately, I've been hearing about young girls being presented with cakes & gifts when they get their first periods. This was definitely NOT done when I was growing up! Describe your first period & your family's reaction (if any) -- how old were you, & how was the occasion marked (if at all)?

I've already spoken about my period enough for people to throw up in their mouths a bit so instead I'll write about what I did for a student. Her mother died when she was nine or ten and her father was completely clueless about girls. She stayed after class one day and told me that she thought she had gotten her period for the first time. I sent her to the nurse to learn how to use a pad and to get some Tylenol.

When she got back, I told her that she should celebrate that night and she said that (1) she would never be able to discuss periods with her father and (2) her heart hurt too much to celebrate without her mother. I asked her show up at school a bit early the next day and come to my room.

The next morning, we had breakfast together and I told her that while I was not going to embarrass the crap out of her by discussing menstruation, I thought the moment should be marked. Just two women having muffins, celebrating being ladies. If her mother was not here to do it, she should not have to ask for someone to make the day special. Any adult who hears her news should throw her a small party, so I did.

I still think about that student. I have no idea where she is or what she is doing. She should be about 20-years-old by now; have experienced nearly 100 periods. I hope she always thinks about that day when she eats blueberry muffins.

Hop along to another stop on this blog tour by visiting the main list at Stirrup Queens (above this one). You can also sign up for the next book on this online book club: Navigating the Land of If by Melissa Ford.


Anonymous said...

Mel, I'm sitting at my desk in tears. This is deeply moving. I started writing an insanely long comment, but decided to blog about it instead, so as not to clog up your comment space, if you want to check it out.

luna said...

I love what you did for that student. I agree that is just so deeply moving. you are amazing. I can bet that moment profoundly impacted her life. you are awesome.

I absolutely loved 'the red tent' when I read it before. wasn't able to read it this time around, but I am past due for a good read again. thanks for sharing this.

loribeth said...

*sniffle* Mel, that was so sweet of you. : ) You have definitely given us some memorable stories to carry with us!

Emily said...

I read this book a year or so ago. I will attempt to blog about it today.

Kristin said...

I knew I loved you before this but I am amazed and touched by the sensitivity you showed that young woman. You took a day that could have been emotionally traumatic and tempered the pain of her loss.

Lavender Luz said...

What a beautiful way to mark womanhood, with a caring woman bearing blueberry muffins and paying attention to you.

Your answer has affected how I will mark it when my daughter's time comes. I will make it special and celebratory.

Dora said...

What a beautiful thing you did for your student. I'm very touched.

Julia said...

What a beautiful story. Thank you for what you did for that student. I hope it stayed with her. I know it will stay with me. Yet another of Mel's stories to carry forward.

(That was my question, btw, about the stories, and I thank you for taking it on. I also went there in my own post, overlong as usual, and found myself tacking recipes into the mix right along with stories. Not entirely surprising, eh?)

Cassandra said...

Every story I hear about your teaching makes me think more and more that you are an incredible person who has touched so many lives. Now the internet are your students.

Of course, I realize you don't tend to tell the stories about having a migraine, putting on a video for the class period, and putting your head on the desk.

Lollipop Goldstein said...

That would take too many entries to tell about all the times I phoned it in and showed a video. Or how I always cried whenever I taught the French Revolution--not just a few sniffles, but year after year, it was the school joke because I would be giving my lecture and start sobbing. I don't know what it is about the French Revolution, but I'm getting teary writing this.

My nickname at school was the teacher who teased too much. A child gave me that name in the second year and it stuck for a long time. And it was because...I teased too much.

Anonymous said...

I'm sniffling along with the others about your last 2 paragraphs. You've told the story very simply, but I think all of us read it as a movie script about the smart but struggling student and the inspirational, selfless teacher. :)

Rebecca said...

I love the description of what you did for your student. Such a wonderful thing to do for a young woman going through the loss of her mother and becoming a woman herself. Your kindness and compassion for others shows in all you do.