Title: The Red Ribbon
Author: Lucy Adlington
Genre: General Fiction (Adult), Teens & YA
Publisher: Hot Key Books, Bonnier Zaffre
Release Date: 21st September 2017
BLURB from Goodreads
Rose, Ella, Marta and Carla. In another life we might have all been friends together. But this was Birchwood.
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.
So approaching this book I wasn't sure what to expect, I was hoping for a personal level story not just a retelling of the atrocities. I personally think that the Holocaust is something that should never ever be forgotten. I have read a few books, both fiction and non fiction that are set in this era of history. This book is actually based on facts though it is a work of fiction as are the people portrayed in it. It brings home to you that those horrific acts were carried out on normal people every day people that belonged in families. These people didn't do anything to warrant being treated in the horrendous ways the German army treat them.
The background of the cover is a bleak grey/white colour, which I think represents the nothingness of the world the prisoners are forced to exist in. There is a red ribbon as a main feature of the cover and it is twined around some barbed wire. Also on the cover are some different buttons, which have an important significance in the book. The cover also features the byline "Every dress she makes could mean the difference between life and death" which you realise when reading the book that this is a stark truth. Something as simple as one of the female guards, the male guards wives or the Commandants Wife not liking a dress you have made them, or you may have not made it quickly enough could result in you being shot, or worse having you job & it's meagre perks taken away from you. Losing your job could mean a slow death from starvation and heavy back breaking work. I did find the cover interesting and it certainly made me curious about the red ribbon and the pretty buttons and how they were a part of the ugliness of a concentration camp. I felt compelled to read the book, we owe it to both the few that survived and the ones that didn't to read their stories and pass them on to the next generation. I really did feel pulled into this book immediately and it held me captive and on the edge of my seat until the very end.
So the books main character is a fourteen year old girl called Ella who is picked up on the street whilst running an errand and taken to Birkenau-Auschwitz. No one has a name anymore, just a number you must remember and be able to recite to any guard or prominent that asks you for it. Ella manages to fake her age as sixteen, as anyone below that age is considered useless and usually ends up either doing back breaking work that kills them or being sent to the "showers". I would describe Ella as being an optimist, always hoping for the best, seeing the good in people. There is very little in her surroundings to find good or hope in but she manages to battle on through whatever is done to her or taken from her. Ella's character, and seeing the awful acts being committed around her give us the reader a very realistic insight into the era covered by the book.
Another central character in the book is Rose, who is described as looking like a la-di-da who wears odd shoes, one is a sickly green satin slipper with a metal buckle, the other is a leather brogue with broken laces. The thing that stands out about Rose is she really doesn't care what she may look like. She has shoes to wear and that's fine. Rose ends up sharing a bunk and mattress with Ella. Rose tells Ella all about how her mother is a famous writer, that she will be waiting for her. Rose also likes to make up stories which become a quite popular way the girls while away time until they finally fall asleep in their bunks. They come to rely on each other for hope. Rose and Ella even plan for "after" their time in Auschwitz-Birkenau. They list family they want to see, books they want to read, clothes they wish to make and wear as well as having a dress shop and working there together. They even plan where to meet up, a place which their famous dress shop will be.
In the book Ella tells her story of how she came to be where she is, which is Birchwood. Though Birchwood is much better known and most often referred to in history as Auschwitz-Birkenau. A one sentence description of Auschwitz within this book stood out for me "The place where everyone arrives, and nobody leaves." Those people dispatched to Auschwitz soon realise that their lives have changed forever, and to survive, they have to adapt quickly. These prisoners find out that what before seemed trivial can be something that is very important when it is taken away. All prisoners are stripped of all their clothes and possessions and given identical stripey garments to wear, their hair is shaved and the women given a piece of fabric to use as a scarf. Then you are thrown some shoes from a large pile of them, so there's a scramble to get a pair that fit let alone a pair that match.
A typical day for Ella began with being woken in her barracks at four thirty am, she had to climb from the top of the three tier damp wooden shelves, leaving her dirty straw mattress behind. With around five hundred women squashed in each barrack block, it meant at least six women to a bunk, with just one mattress shared by at least two women. There was no other furniture in the barracks block, just some toilet buckets. Each Barracks has a "Barracks Boss", who is a prisoner themselves but rules the Barracks. "Bull" is the boss of the Barracks that Ella exists in. With cramped conditions like this it was inevitable that disease, infestations and illnesses spread rapidly. Though being sent to the camp hospital was the last place you wished to be sent as it was rare for anyone to return from hospital. Once up, there was Roll Call.You really was just a number in a list, not a human being. Stripeys had badges made of different colour cloth sewn onto their dresses. The badge showed the reasons why "They" has decided you weren't fit to live in the real, free world anymore, such as a green triangle for bosses. Rose aka Squirrel/Princess has a red triangle which means she is a political prisoner. In Ella's opinion it's crazy, how can Rose be a political enemy!? She was such a dreamy, dipstick, who loved stories. Ella has a gold star, but this gold star was not like one you could receive at school for good work, and to be worn with pride. This star meant you were classed and treated as the lowest of the low, not even a full human, they were treat below human and were totally disposable!
At roll call everything had to be perfect, everyone had to look the same, the guards made sure. Ella recalls a woman who had dared to attempt to slick what was left of her hair to try to make herself look/feel better. The guards pounced on this woman who had dared to try to make herself look and feel better and she was punished by being beaten unconscious.
This book is packed with incidents where stripeys are put in their place by the guards for the most trivial things possible.
There are other jobs available at the camp, such as working in the "washery" or sorting through possessions for valuables and for items that can be reused, or the back breaking work in the surrounding fields. You had to be tougher to work in the "washery" so it is a very big change from working in the sewing room. Ella still refers to those around her in terms of animals. There's Bear, the boss of the washery who is in charge of giving out the specific tasks. Then there's Hyena who assists Bear, they both make life difficult for Ella and Rose insinuating they are "too soft" to do the work. Ella and Rose are given the worst jobs day in and day out but they still remain grateful for the work as it means a little more food at the end of the day as well as another day not having to do the back breaking work that eventually kills you. They do eventually earn the respect of the tougher women in the "washery" too.
By faking her age and keeping her eyes and ears open she hears about a job going in the sewing room. There is a kind of frantic race to the sewing room, Ella and a female she names "Rabbit". Rabbit even loses one of her shoes in the process. Those wanting the job have to impress Marta, the Prominent in charge of the sewing room. (Prominent's are prisoners who have been given privileges and power. They have just enough power to rule the other prisoners making the majority of them into successful bullies.) Marta put Ella and Rabbit on trial, they are each given a task. Ella to make a dress from scratch for a blonde client called Carla. Where as Rabbit as Ella names her (is 24 years old, and stutters and shuffles about like a rabbit) is tasked with letting out a designer blouse for a client who doesn't want to admit how plump she is. There is much more to the trial than I have shared but I don't want to giveaway too much, so I'll just say that Ella manages to impress the "Prominent" Marta and her client Carla. The sewing and dressmaking skills Ella has were learnt whilst sitting with her Grandmother end up coming in really useful. It means Ella has a good chance at a relatively good job that is coveted by many. When Ella is in the sewing room her thoughts often stray to memories she made with her Grandmother, such as where her Grandmother is now? If she wonders where she (Ella) is? If Grandmother is waiting for her to return? Ella also asks herself what her grandmother would say or do in the situations she finds herself in.
Those employed in the sewing room don't get chance to speak to each other very much, they are their to work and provide a dressmaking service primarily to the Commandant's wife. So when Ella works there she gives her fellow workers names that remind her how they behave. There's Marta, the prominent in charge who loves giving orders, her name is "Shark". The other girls that applied for a job the same day as Ella are "Squirrel/Princess" (Rose) who gets put on trial with Ella. Then there's "Rabbit" who lost a shoe in the race to get to the sewing room as quickly as possible to be interviewed for the vacancy. Rabbit is 24 years old, and stutters and shuffles about like a rabbit. Already working in the sewing room that Ella originally notices is Francine "Frog" who is wide and squat with blobby skin.
Ella is quite successful in her sewing and making garments, but with success comes more danger. Though Ella becomes a more trusted prisoner, she has to be careful to act meekly and as expected to act by the guards or she will be immediately slapped down. What is given can quite easily be ripped away.
I loved the way the character of Ella shares some of her Grandmothers sayings in the book. They seem to envoke happier memories for her. Grandmothers sayings are things such as, "Clean hands means clean work", "Waste not want not", and "Better than a smack in the eye with a wet kipper". Ella also remembers her Grandmothers advice such as "Don't think failure, you can do anything you put your mind to", "Sorry doesn't butter any bread"and "Cross that bridge when you come to it, or swim the river if you have to".
As you will probably have guessed by now Ella was my favourite character, she knew what was happening around her,she could see it and hear it all but to cope she manages to shut the bad things out as much as she can. It is something she has to do to survive. When one door is quite literally slammed in her face she doesn't give up and looks around until she can find another job. Ella is a character that needs to work and keep busy in order to block out the horrors taking place around her. Ella may only be a teenager but she quickly adapts to her surroundings and learn when to speak up and when to turn a blind eye even when she really wants to stand up for herself and those around her. In the unlikely surroundings Ella manages to make both a best friend and other friends, some of which she doesn't realise she has until she is at her very lowest. Ella's best friend is Rose aka Squirrel/Princess. Rose came from a well to do, wealthy family. Rose loves telling stories and claims her mother is a famous author. The actions of those around her lead you to perceive Rose as living in her own little, self created world. Though I would say don't be so quick to judge some of the characters in this book as there are a few surprises. I did grow to love Rose as a character, though she came across as a little "air headed" she truly ends up helping Ella survive when things are tough. I won't go into how the red ribbon comes into the book, but will say it becomes a treasured beacon of hope in an increasingly dark, stark world.
For characters I "hated" I would have to choose Marta the head of the sewing room, who takes credit for the hard work of the other girls. Marta also constantly refers to the fact she was "trained by the best."Also Carla who is a tough guard that enjoys having clothes made for her by Ella. Carla at a couple of points in the book seems to genuinely care about Ella, almost becoming a friend to her. Then Carla also is instrumental in Ella losing her job in the sewing room.
As to what I thought about this book it feels wrong describing the book as an enjoyable read because of its subject and content. I think though I have read other books and watched movies on this subject, I still found the book enlightening. The cover piqued my interest, the blurb made me even more curious, I hadn't heard of the "sewing room" at Auschwitz so wanted to know more. It is one of the few books on this subject I have read that is from the point of view of a young female character. It was at times heart-breaking when Ella, is reminiscing about her grandmother, especially the "sewing machine incident" which I won't go into within the review but you will almost certainly know what section of the book I am referring to when you read. Another part of the book I will not go into in detail is the "liberation dress" incident, again the feelings it gives you are a mixture of good and bad, so many tears and a few smiles.
I was reading this book through tears at some points, it is a very honest account of such horrific incidents from the point of view of a child torn from her family, no chance to say goodbye and no knowledge to where her family is whilst all this happening to her. I became attached and instantly cared about Ella and what was happening to her as well the sometimes awful choices she was confronted with. I really didn't want to put this book down once I began reading it.
I don't know about anyone else but I always read the sections such as acknowledgements, or letters/note from the author. In this book the author Lucy Adlington reveals that the sewing room featured is in fact based on the real one that was based in Auschwitz. Coincidentally the head of the real sewing room was actually called Marta, though the name is the only similarity between the characters. I also discovered that Lucy Adlington is not only a writer but a costume historian, something I find extremely interesting. So I will certainly be checking out other books both fiction and non fiction by this author!
My thoughts as I finished reading the book were that I had just read an amazing book. The author
has written a fictional version based on the extremely real facts that took place at the horrific
prisoner of war camp that is better known as Auschwitz. This is the sort of
history that should be taught about in schools so the atrocities and those who
died are never ever forgotten. Sure it's not a pretty light hearted story, it's as close to the facts you will ever get other than reading a book or speaking to an actual survivor.