The Red Ribbon
Hot Key Books, 2017
YA – Historical
When women arrive at Birchwood they are stripped of their clothes, their belongings and their dignity. They are given striped sacks to wear and wooden shoes, their hair shorn and their name replaced with a number. Those who are able are put to work, those who aren’t disappear. Fourteen-year-old Ella is a seamstress, but the workshop she works in is in Birkenau-Auschwitz and her clients are the guards, the wives of the officers and the commander. Ella’s dresses are her key to extra bread and to items she can barter, but she is also creating couture for the enemy. And at any moment, she could be out of favour.
This is a compelling and moving read. The characters are complex and varied, and show us the different ways people survive, the ways they hold on to their sense of self. Ella, the protagonist, is often quite conflicted. Her best friend Rose is an idealistic dreamer, their boss Marta is a hard-edged fighter. There is also a guard, Carla, who strikes up a complicated friendship of sorts with Ella. Each character is fleshed out and interesting.
This book really made me think about the importance of clothing – in terms of identity, dignity and self-expression. As Ella says, clothes don’t seem trivial when you don’t have any, and are left vulnerable and frightened. Each section is given a different colour, which links to the mood and to material items in the story. The red ribbon of the title is key to the book – a symbol of hope, of wish for liberation and a happier future.
The book is well-researched, and features plenty of detail. I will definitely be checking out Adlington’s book, Stitches in Time, about fashion history.
With its memorable characters, emotional depth and historical detail, The Red Ribbon is an absorbing read. Highly recommended!