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Archive for June 21st, 2008

Historical Fiction?

I just finished reading Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent.  I was filled with such utter loathing that writing much of anything on my books read page was incredibly difficult.  Even here it’s going to be difficult, so bear with me.

When I was much younger, I really enjoyed reading historical fiction, particularly when it pertained to Tudor England. I devoured the works of Jean Plaidy and Philippa Gregory and their comrades. As I grew older, however, I found that I much preferred reading history and trying to puzzle out for myself what happened.

I chose to read this book in part because I had heard a lot of good things about it. And in all justice, many of those positive comments were spot on. Diamant has a knack for drawing the reader into the story. She’s a very good writer. I honestly have nothing to complain about regarding characterization, plot, etc. As far as all of that goes, I would say that it is a good book. If the characters bore different names, I might not feel as strongly as I do.

And therein lies the rub.

I remember learning about Joseph when I was young. He was the oldest son of Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel, and he was chosen by Heavenly Father to be a ruler over his older brethren. He had a coat of many colours and his brothers were envious. His brothers trapped him in a pit and were going to murder him, but ended up selling him as a slave instead. They ripped his coat and smeared animal’s blood on it, and took it back to their father as proof that he had been slain by a wild beast. When Joseph was brought to Egypt, he was purchased by a man named Potiphar. Potiphar loved and trusted Joseph and promoted him to a high position in his household. Potiphar’s wife lusted after Joseph and tried to seduce him, but he ran from her, unknowingly leaving a scrap of his robe in her hands. She cried rape, and Potipher had Joseph cast into prison, where Joseph was able to interpret the dreams of several men and ended up being brought before the Pharaoh to interpret his dreams. He did so, and Pharaoh put him in a position of great responsibility. He had two children, Manasseh and Ephraim. During the time of the famine, his family who were starving went to Egypt to purchase grain. They did not recognize him, but he recognized them and laid a few traps to see if they had changed. They had changed; there was a happy reunion; and all was well with the world.

Sound familiar?

Diamant’s Joseph has little in common with the Joseph I met in the book of Genesis. A servant in his house tells Dinah, “he was set above the other servants in the house, for Po-ti-far loved the Canaanite boy and used him for his own pleasure. But Po-ti-far’s wife, a great beauty called Nebetper, also looked upon him with longing, and the two of them became lovers right under the master’s nose. There is even some gossip about who fathered her last daughter. In any case, Po-ti-far finally discovered them in bed together and he could no longer pretend not to know what was going on. So in a great show of anger and vengeance, he sent [Joseph] to prison” (p. 286-287).

The nature of historical fiction is such that the author takes what is reported to have happened, and fills in the gaps with inventive narrative that pulls the reader into the story. And in cases where there is but a brief mention of an historical figure, the author can be much more creative in approaching that figure’s story. I can deal with that. Had Diamant told the exact same story she put into Dinah’s mouth, without changing the nature of such people as reported in what little history we have of them, I wouldn’t be objecting right now. But that’s not what she did. And that’s why I didn’t like the book.

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