After achieving international renown for her work of historical fiction set in ancient Israel, the New York Times best-selling novel The Red Tent, Rockport resident and author Anita Diamant brings her latest set of characters back home to the North Shore. By, Tamsin Venn – Photographs by Dana Smith
In the novel that author Anita Diamant is currently writing, a group of young women in 1915 journey from Boston to Rockport by train to escape their office and department store jobs and the pressures of urban life. Over the course of a week or two in this North Shore town, they hike, sail, swim, and play tennis—activities the Jewish, Italian, and Irish immigrant girls have never experienced before.
Diamant, a Rockport resident and author of the New York Times bestseller The Red Tent, has set part of her new novel at Rockport Lodge, a 1750s farmhouse on Route 127 that’s now a private home. On a walk with Diamant from her home to the property, she explains that her newest characters spent their summer at the lodge, opened in 1906, as a kind of Fresh Air Fund-arrangement at the start of the whole settlement movement. Diamant was inspired by the place upon learning about its history as a guest house for women and girls of limited means.
Early 20th-century Boston was abuzz with the rise of novel concepts like department stores, movies, and women’s magazines. The era also saw the invention of the typewriter and the founding of Simmons College, says Diamant, who loves historical research. Boston’s North End, she says, was dense and unhealthy. For the heroines of her latest book, having their own beds and towels and going to the beach and sailing were “things that were completely alien to them, like going from Kansas to Oz,” she says. “I find that completely fascinating.”
The North Shore setting is not new for this richly imaginative writer; Diamant has set two previous novels on Cape Ann. The Last Days of Dogtown recreates the daily lives of castoffs—widows, orphans, spinsters, scoundrels, whores, free Africans, and “witches”—living in a lonely hamlet outside Gloucester in the early 1800s. Good Harbor tells the tale of a nurturing friendship between two women, one a cancer patient, as it develops during restorative beach walks. In Good Harbor, Diamant explores the modern woman’s balancing act of marriage and career, motherhood and friendship. “No matter what the setting, my characters always lead the action,” says Diamant.
But Diamant is best known for ancient settings found in The Red Tent, an imaginary telling of the biblical story of Dinah, daughter of Leah and Jacob. Dinah is barely mentioned in the Bible (her 12 brothers get a lot more attention), but Diamant weaves an entire drama around the girl, her mother, and her aunts. This memorable work of fiction gives voice to the silent women—their passions, traditions, and turmoil—in The Old Testament.
Published by St. Martin’s Press in 1997, the book sold modestly at first. It had no advertising budget and few reviews in major periodicals. “When it came out, it came out to thunderous silence,” says Diamant. “It almost didn’t get published in paperback. You have this fantasy that your life is going to change forever when your novel comes out, but it doesn’t.” As independent book stores, reading groups, and trailblazing women’s rabbi associations adopted it, The Red Tent became a “word-of-mouth” success and is now published in 20 languages.
The Newburyport Choral Society invited Diamant to narrate Arthur Honegger’s choral masterpiece King David. The organization had asked her as a Bible scholar, though she vehemently contests her reputation as such. She explains that the story of Dinah was based strictly on her imagination.
“The Red Tent retells the story of Dinah, which is found in the Biblical book of Genesis, Chapter 34. This episode, usually known as the ‘Rape of Dinah,’ has been a difficult passage for Bible readers for centuries because of the murderous behavior of Jacob’s sons. In Genesis, Dinah does not say a single word; what happens to her is recounted and characterized as rape by her brothers. In my retelling of the story, Dinah finds her voice. The Red Tent is told entirely from her perspective and the point of view of the women around her,” writes Diamant on her website.
Diamant once received an email from one man who said he was praying for her because of the liberties she took with the Old Testament story. “It’s not a novelization of the text. It’s a riff. It takes off. I feel it’s an honor when people bring me in as a Bible scholar, but it’s something I can’t take credit for,” Diamant says.
So how did Diamant come to set her subsequent novels on Cape Ann as opposed to ancient Israel? She found inspiration in local lore. While walking around Gloucester finishing The Red Tent, she found a pamphlet on Dogtown in the Bookstore of Gloucester. That led her to a slim volume titled In the Heart of Cape Ann, or the Story of Dogtown. The author, Charles Mann, claimed he gleaned the information from “sweet-faced old ladies” and noble old men who sat gossiping around the fire. The illustrator, Catherine M. Follansbee, had a field day sketching broom-riding witches.
“The thumbnail sketches of the people were so fabulous,” says Diamant. Everything that had ever been written about Dogtown was in that pamphlet. There’s no real history, only gossip and hearsay, and Diamant thought it was fine for writing a novel. “I didn’t feel like I was hurting anyone’s memory,” she says. She was also interested in the compelling history of early Africans in New England, represented by two characters.
Diamant’s most recently published novel, Day After Night, a work of historical fiction, is set in 1945 Palestine in a British prison camp for Jewish immigrants who fled Nazi Germany. Diamant had visited the detention camp, Atlit, now a museum near Haifa, during her daughter’s Hebrew school’s semester in Israel. She was struck by the escape of 200 detainees, a story better known in Israel than in the U.S. in which Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin played a role. She soon began research for the new novel and made several trips there.
The story follows four young women who live through very different war experiences. Diamant was drawn to the powerful concept of surviving such a crushing experience, as both of her parents are Holocaust survivors. Diamant feels the book demonstrates the importance Israel had as a place for millions of displaced Jews after World War II and still has today in the volatile Middle East. And while the book was difficult to write, the fact that these young women were eventually able to share their suffering with each other and create new beginnings for themselves helped make the process bearable, Diamant says. “I thought it was an amazing story and wanted to tell it from the rearview mirror,” she says.
Diamant moved to Boston in the 1970s after earning a degree in comparative literature from Washington University in St. Louis, and a master’s in literature from SUNY Binghamton. Before trying her hand at fiction, she published six non-fiction books about contemporary Jewish practice. She wrote columns for the Boston Phoenix and the Boston Globe Magazine and compiled them into the highly inspiring and entertaining Pitching My Tent: On Marriage, Motherhood, Friendship, and Other Leaps of Faith. Some of her gems include: “No matter how loving your mate, no matter how huggy-kissy your kid, doglessness spells tactile deprivation.” Also: “There must have been raspberries in the Garden of Eden, which convinces me that Adam and Eve were, developmentally at least, nothing but babies. Because given the choice between an apple and an unlimited supply of raspberries, only a small child would go for the Red Delicious.”
Today, Diamant is moving in other directions, which include writing song lyrics. Her new CD, “Requited,” is full of fabulous jazz riffs for which she wrote the lyrics with her friend Bert Seager. It is the most fun she’s ever had as a writer, she says.
Diamant’s writing space in her Rockport home is next to the dining room table, under a painting of Good Harbor Beach, a gift from her husband. The painting is poignant, as Diamant finds inspiration on Good Harbor Beach, as well as at Rocky Neck, Gloucester Harbor, and Rockport’s Headlands, where she walks her dog. “It’s the place I go to in my head when I need to calm down,” she says.
Later, on a stroll with the author down a quiet lane from Rockport Lodge back to her house, it’s striking just how close to home Diamant found inspiration for her new work of historical fiction—more specifically, how far it is from the ancient biblical setting that propelled her into international fame. For this famous author, regardless how wide-reaching her works become and how well-known her name is, there’s no place like home.