By Hope Katz Gibbs
Be Inkandescent Magazine
Even if you haven’t read “The Red Tent,” odds are good that you have heard of the runaway best-seller by award-winning author Anita Diamant.
The story, set during the times of the Old Testament, is told through the eyes of Dinah, the daughter of Leah and Jacob. Diamant imagines the traditions and turmoils of ancient womanhood — the world that existed inside the sacred red tent. Published in 1987, it has since been translated into 28 languages and millions of copies have been sold.
“The Red Tent” found yet another audience this past December when it premiered as a two-part miniseries (Dec. 7-8) on Lifetime TV. Its all-star cast included Minnie Driver, Iain Glen, Will Tudor, and Debra Winger.
What has Diamant really excited, though, is the launch of her latest historical novel, “The Boston Girl,” which hit stores in December.
Written with the same attention to detail as her previous hits — “Good Harbor,” “The Last Days of Dogtown,” and “Day After Night” — this tale transports readers to the turn-of-the-20th-century saga of Addie Baum.
Born in 1900 to Jewish immigrant parents who were unprepared for America, Addie struggles to develop her personality and voice despite the rantings of her overprotective (and slightly abusive) mother.
To the rescue come Miss Chevalier, a mentor who sees her gifts; new friends who ask her to join their Saturday Club and support her on her journey; and myriad other significant characters who serve to challenge and love Addie as she leaps over obstacles with gumption, guts, and style.
“If it wasn’t for Miss Chevalier, Addie probably wouldn’t have found her own voice,” Diamant believes. “She might have ended up in a low-paying, low-energy, and non-intellectual job. But that’s not what happens to her. With the help that she got when she was 15-16 years old, she finds her way to a kind of life she only really dreamed about as a little girl.”
While this coming-of-age tale provides insight into the Jewish cultural beliefs and mores in Boston starting in 1915, the book has relevance today. “This is a classic immigrant story — Jewish, Italian, Irish, even today we have people coming from Asia and Africa as well,” Diamant says.
Part of the book’s charm is that Addie is 85, telling the tale of her life to her 22-year-old granddaughter, who wants to know: “How did you get to be the woman you are today?”
The same question can be asked of Diamant, 63, who started her career as a freelance journalist and has written for the Boston Globe, Self, Parenting, Parents, McCalls, and Ms.
“I was itching to write a book, and I was looking for a topic,” says Diamant. She had just gotten married and refers to her husband, Jim, as “a lapsed Presbyterian” who converted to Judaism. “I had asked the Rabbi for books to read as a guide, but nothing seemed to fit. So I decided to write one that I thought would be for brides like myself.”
“The New Jewish Wedding,” was published in 1986, and was the first of seven nonfiction titles Diamant has penned on contemporary Jewish life. “After my first book was published, I swore I would write no more Jewish books, but I did. Each time, I felt that a similar gap on the bookshelf needed to be filled.”
While Diamant says nonfiction is easier to write, she is passionate about the themes for her fiction titles, which are inspired by ideas that pique her curiosity.
For instance, “The Boston Girl” was inspired by the story of the Rockport Lodge, located in a seaside town about an hour from Boston. It was a women’s-only lodge, founded in the early 20th century, where social workers would make it possible for young, working immigrant girls to have a vacation.
“Taking a vacation like that would have not been part of their universe,” Diamant realizes, since recreation was one of the values of the progressive area. “But the social workers were interested in giving girls that experience. That was the setting, and I thought I would write a book set in Rockport Lodge, and then the heroine of the book came to the forefront more and more as I wrote … and she is a Boston girl. That was the Genesis story of this one.”
Diamant is particularly sensitive to what happens when one generation not born in American has children here, as she herself is a daughter of immigrants. Her parents, who moved to the United States in the late 1940s, met as interned refugees in Switzerland, and spoke good English. In fact, she credits her father with “the literary part of me.”
“So my experience was not like Addie’s; we are talking about a different universe,” she insists. “But there is a difference between someone who is American-born, and someone who isn’t. I did have wonderful teachers and counselors and drama coaches in my public school who set me off in directions that put me here talking to you today.”
Click here to listen to our podcast interview with Anita Diamant on the Inkandescent Radio Network.