By Mary Burnett Smith
THE RED TENT
By Anita Diamant.
A Wyatt Book for St. Martin's Press
321 pp., $23.95
BLESSING ON THE MOON
By Joseph Skibell
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
256 pp, $21.95
IF YOU LIVED HERE, YOU'D BE HOME BY NOW
By Sandra Tsing Loh
231 pp., $23.95
Sifting through the stacks of first novels that pile up in my
study, I came across four that, in their very different ways,
managed to hold my attention and engage my imagination.
These four writers tackle totally dissimilar subjects. Each
has honed a distinct style of writing. And each has chosen to work
in a very different novelistic form.
Ordinary daily life in rural Virginia in 1948 is the subject
of Mary Burnett Smith's evocative Miss Ophelia. Herself a retired
schoolteacher, Smith touchingly portrays a pivotal summer in the
life of Isabel ("Belly") Anderson, an 11-year-old black girl. The
story is told by Isabel herself, now a grandmother with a keen
memory for the people and events that helped form her adult
A voracious reader, young Belly devours every book she can
get her hands on, from fairy tales to "Silas Marner." She also
learns from observing what goes on around her. There are secrets
aplenty: teenage pregnancy, illicit love affairs, hushed-up
abortions. But, as her Uncle Willie wisely remarks, the more she
finds out, the less likely it is that she'll make the same mistakes.
Belly learns by example and counter-example: from those she
loves, like her clear-headed mother, and from those of whom she's
not so fond, like her mother's carping, sanctimonious sister, Aunt
Rachel. When she reluctantly goes for a long visit to her aunt's,
Belly's great consolation is taking piano lessons from the
reclusive, but kindly Miss Ophelia.
Entering adolescence in the segregated South, Belly inhabits
a world that is largely black, but not free from color prejudice.
Light-skinned Aunt Rachel looks down on plum-colored Miss Ophelia,
even though the latter is far better educated than she is.
Learning to judge people by their inner qualities is another
lesson Belly learns on her journey toward adulthood. Smith has
created an appealing heroine, refreshingly outspoken, yet capable
of self-criticism and self-discipline.
Anita Diamant's The Red Tent is a historical novel, more
specifically, a biblical novel, a genre that has attracted such
diverse talents as Lew Wallace, Sholem Asch, Nikos Kazantzakis, and
Diamant's novel is based on the biblical figure Dinah, only
daughter of the patriarch Jacob, sister to the 12 brothers whose
offspring became the tribes of Israel. Dinah's main claim to fame
in Genesis arose from her being raped by the son of a neighboring
king. But, as Diamant has conceived it, there is much more to her
In "The Red Tent," she creates a voice for this neglected
woman, allowing her to tell, not only her version of the rape, but
the entire story of her life and the lives of her mothers. Dinah is
born to the fecund, capable Leah. But Jacob's other wives - Leah's
sister Rachel, and Zilpah and Bilhah - are also "mothers" to her.
Each has something special to impart, whether it's Leah's excellent
recipes, Zilpah's legends and songs, Bilhah's kind-heartedness, or
Rachel's skills as a midwife.
Diamant, an award winning journalist, vividly conjures up the
ancient world of caravans, shepherds, farmers, midwives, slaves,
and artisans in a novel that takes us from Mesopotamia and Canaan
down into Egypt, where Dinah, like her more famous brother Joseph,
finds a refuge.
It's revisionist feminist history, to be sure, but
inventiveness befits a work of fiction. Diamant's Dinah is a
compelling narrator of a tale that has timeless resonance.
In A Blessing on the Moon, Joseph Skibell has created a kind
of extended fable, with strong elements of fantasy and the