‘You shouldn’t talk to strangers, you know,’ her mother said, shaking her head at Matilda as she came inside, the screen door banging behind her.

‘They’re not strangers,’ Matilda defended herself. ‘They’re neighbours.’

In The Red Shoe, Australian Children’s Laureate, Ursula Dubosarksy swoops down and gives us a taste of life in Sydney from 1954.

The eldest of three sisters, Elizabeth, is home from school after suffering a nervous breakdown. Middle sister, Frances, is the more aloof of the three. Matilda, the youngest, is perceptive, charming and real. The girls’ mother is a stereotypical 1950s mother: she has headaches and lies down in her darkened room in the afternoons, she likes to flirt with her brother-in-law and she wears red shoes reminiscent of Karen from The Red Shoes by Hans Christian Andersen.

Red here has other connotations: it’s a symbol of Communist threat and linked to the defection of Soviet diplomat Vladimir Petrov in 1954 during the Cold War. It’s also a symbol of judgement upon women’s femininity and sexuality, particularly during this time period.

The Red Shoe is primarily told through Matilda’s eyes. As readers, we ‘see’ what she fears — her father disappearing, the Red Indians and the cowboys waiting in ambush in “the grey-green tangled bush at the end of her street” and the family’s neighbours (the mysterious men in black hats with umbrellas who arrive in black cars and move into the yellow house next door and the mad old Man on the other side who invites Matilda in for chocolate biscuits).

I don’t think it was chance that Dubosrasky gave the sisters their names. I’ve interpreted Elizabeth as the ‘old’ country and Matilda as the ‘new’ country. Although seamless, there is much at work behind this story.

This is a story of healing; of a family finding itself again and of a country coming to terms with its politics.

Interspersed with newspaper clippings from the time, there are layers upon layers of meaning in this story.

Don’t believe the negative reviews on Goodreads, this is a book of eloquence, subtlety and truth. A wonderful read for young adult readers and adults alike. Highly recommended.

Awards

Short-listed APA Design Awards, Griffin Press Best Designed Young Adult Book 2007 AU; Runner-up CBCA Book of the Year, Older Readers, 2007 2007 AU; Winner NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, Ethel Turner Prize for Best Young Adult Book 2007 AU; Winner QLD Premier’s Literary Awards, Best Young Adult Book 2006 AU