The Red Dress by Gaby Halberstam

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The Red Dress by Gaby Halberstam

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Category: Teens
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Dawn Powell
Reviewed by Dawn Powell
Summary: A good start but in the rush to reach the finish line, fails the final hurdle
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 256 Date: February 2009
Publisher: Macmillan's Children's Books
ISBN: 978-0330450539

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Set in South Africa in 1944, The Red Dress follows the adventures of 14-year-old Rifke Lubetkin. Rifke does not have it easy. Most teenagers would claim that their parents are a complete nightmare, but Rifke really does have cause to complain: her father went AWOL long ago and her harridan of a mother is so strict that she doesn't let Rifke speak to boys, let alone date them. One day, after yet another argument with her mother (over a red dress—hence the book's title), Rifke impulsively hops on a train. Intending to go to see her Aunt and Uncle, she accidently ends up in a backwater in the South African countryside. To her total horror, she can't get a train back home for another 30 days. While she waits, she learns important life lessons about love and family.

The Red Dress must be one of the most tragic books I have ever read; not because Rifke's story is particularly depressing, but because it could have been so much better if Halberstam had tried a little harder. She starts off well by managing to simultaneously write from Rifke's point of view and subtly hint that Rifke's idealistic take on life prevents her from seeing the true picture — i.e., you know someone is not what they seem before Rifke does.

Halberstam is also very skilful in the way she has several plotlines simmering below the surface, giving the reader several things to think about. For example, why is there is so much tension in the Van Niel family (who Rifke stays with while stuck in the backwater) and why is Rifke's mother quite so bitter? Then, almost as if in a panic to finish her story, Halberstam abruptly answers the questions she has spent a fair portion of the book raising. She also leaves a fair few things unanswered — we never fully understand why Rifke's family decamped from Lithuania to South Africa nor is it explained why her father left her mother (apart from getting the general impression he was a nasty piece of work).

Other things that you would think she automatically mention, she doesn't really touch upon. For example, Rifke is Jewish and it is 1944, so why no mention of the Jewish persecution in Europe? Obviously, just because a book is set during the Second World War and has Jewish characters does not mean it has to be about the Holocaust, but it does seem odd that there is virtually no reference to it. Another major issue that I had with this book is that you have to suspend your disbelief that little bit too far. For most of the book, the villain of the piece is a believably selfish and deeply unpleasant character but at the very end, for some reason best known to Halberstam, they are transformed into a pantomime-type baddie. So much so that you almost expect them to cackle madly at their fiendish plotting (they do actually smugly lord their evil triumph over Rifke).

To be fair to Halberstam, The Red Dress is only her second book. If this was a report card, I would say must try harder and learn not to rush things. She definitely has talent as a writer and her future stories will well be worth reading if she slows down a bit.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals then we can recommend Auslander by Paul Dowswell and Then by Morris Gleitzman.

Buy The Red Dress by Gaby Halberstam at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Red Dress by Gaby Halberstam at

Buy The Red Dress by Gaby Halberstam at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Red Dress by Gaby Halberstam at


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Joyce Barnes said:

I’ve just read your review of The red dress as I am going to hear Gabi Halberstam next month. I was interested in your comment about lack of reference to the Jewish persecution. I raised this point with some friends out there; I thought it awful that apartheid had happened in the early fifties, so soon after the Jewish situation in Europe. The response was “Oh, we didn’t really have much information about what was happening in Europe”. I thought this was strange until I had lived there a bit longer and now I realise that the country is quite insular; by and large they are not that interested in goings-on elsewhere in the world. For example, I tried very hard to set up email and penpal contacts for pupils in my school but I had very little response!