The Red Ribbon by Lucy Adlington – REVIEW
As fourteen-year-old Ella begins her first day at work she steps into a world of silks, seams, scissors, pins, hems, and trimmings. She is a dressmaker, but this is no ordinary sewing workshop. Hers are no ordinary clients. Ella has joined the seamstresses of Birkenau-Auschwitz.
Every dress she makes could be the difference between life and death. And this place is all about survival. Ella seeks refuge from this reality, and from haunting memories, in her work and in the world of fashion and fabrics. She is faced with painful decisions about how far she is prepared to go to survive.
Is her love of clothes and creativity nothing more than collaboration with her captors, or is it a means of staying alive? Will she fight for herself alone, or will she trust the importance of an ever-deepening friendship with Rose?
One thing weaves through the colours of couture gowns and camp mud – a red ribbon, given to Ella as a symbol of hope.
“I just hated the way some people had to shove others into a box with a label and say, You’re different. Once you’re labelled ‘different’, people can treat you as if you don’t matter. Which is stupid. I wasn’t a badge or a number. I was Ella!”
When I received this book, I was amazed by how beautiful the cover design and the stunning endpapers were. Gorgeous illustrations are scattered throughout the book and a continuous red ribbon weaves the pages together. Set in Auschwitz, the story centres on four young women – Ella, Rose, Marta, and Carla – and how such horrific circumstances shape their characters and choices. The main character, Ella, is fifteen years old, and a talented seamstress. The beginning of the book questions how far Ella will go to survive. What’s the line between collaborator and survivor? I became quickly invested in Ella’s character and her relationship with the other women as she was just so well written.
“People weren’t simple, made up of just one characteristic, like pure silk, or pure wool. They were woven from all sorts of threads in complex patterns – tartans and abstracts.”
Ella frequently interacts with three other young women at Auschwitz. Marta is a ‘prominent’, a Jewish prisoner put in charge of others. She seemingly represents the harsh decisions some prisoners made to survive at all costs, to put themselves first to ensure they stayed alive. Rose stands out from the others due to her upper-class accent and friendly nature. She is kind, generous, and empathetic, retaining her essential humanity and goodness despite such horrific suffering. The friendship between Ella and Rose is beautifully written and I desperately wanted them both to survive. The red ribbon they share is a symbol of hope and gives them the courage to continue fighting. The final young woman is Carla, a guard who takes a special interest in Ella. Carla is a very difficult character to understand. Her motivations remain obscured and the reasons behind her cruelty are often questioned.
“The best we can do instead is live. Are you listening? The only way to beat them is by not dying. So shut up and survive.”
Appropriately for a book about seamstresses, which is written by a costume historian, The Red Ribbon explores how we use clothes to project a certain appearance. The Jewish prisoners are stripped of their clothes and each given a nondescript dress – they have the outward manifestation of their personality taken away. I particularly appreciated the nuances of the four young women and their hidden facets. They often subvert the reader’s expectations, demonstrating that morality is not as black and white as it first appears. Lucy Adlington constantly returns to the moral choices about surviving and thriving that face each character. One of the main messages I think this book successfully gets across is that acts of kindness are acts of heroism. Each little piece of kindness is a kind of triumph in dark times. I would definitely recommend this book.
A compelling tale of courage and hope set during World War Two.
|About the Author
Lucy Adlington writes YA fiction, including The Diary of Pelly D, Burning Mountain, and Night Witches. Her new novel The Red Ribbon is out Sept 2017. It is inspired by the true stories of the dressmakers of Auschwitz.