Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, Australian author Dubosarsky (Theodora's Gift) eloquently conveys the observations and memories of three sisters—the youngest, Matilda; middle-child Frances, 11; and 15-year-old Elizabeth—living in uncertain times. Growing up "in a house far away... deep in the bush," there are many things six-year-old Matilda doesn't understand: Why is her father (a merchant marine) away so much of the time? Are the mysterious men who moved into the house next door really spies? Why doesn't her older sister, who suffered a "nervous breakdown," ever want to go back to school? Answers to these and other questions quietly emerge as pieces of a complex puzzle that the author artfully fits together. The honest, poignant third-person narrative shifts among the sisters, but focuses mostly on Matilda's point of view, and reveals unsettling details about the family's history. Most specifically, the book brings to light the instability of Matilda's father, a WWII veteran, and the relationship between her mother and musician uncle. Newspaper clippings from the Sydney Morning Heraldthat appear intermittently between chapters give additional insight into an era characterized by suspicion, tragedy and confusion. Dubosarsky proves masterful in conjuring and connecting images. The vision of a pair of red shoes, first mentioned in a fairy tale read to Matilda by Frances (which opens the novel), gains symbolic significance as the story unfolds and family secrets come to light. Ages 12-up. (May)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
The Red Shoeby Ursula Dubosarsky
Funny, tough-minded and tender, this is the story of Matilda and her two sisters growing up in Sydney, Australia, in the early 1950s. Their father is mentally unstable and largely absent, their mother is possibly in the thrall of his brother, and a headline-making Russian spy defection is taking place next door. Punctuated by the headlines of the times, The Red
Funny, tough-minded and tender, this is the story of Matilda and her two sisters growing up in Sydney, Australia, in the early 1950s. Their father is mentally unstable and largely absent, their mother is possibly in the thrall of his brother, and a headline-making Russian spy defection is taking place next door. Punctuated by the headlines of the times, The Red Shoe depicts how the large events of the world can impinge on ordinary lives. This is a novel to savor by one of Australia's most gifted writers for young people.
This novel set in Sydney, Australia in the Cold War era interweaves actual newspaper accounts of a Russian diplomat's 1954 defection with the day-to-day affairs of a local family with three sisters and a father away on military duty much of the time. Focusing mostly on the fascinations and fancies of six-year-old Matilda, the tale follows her observations of the strange men who have guns and fast, shiny black cars staying at the big house next door. When she sees one of those men in a newsreel about the Russian who defected amidst controversy about the fate of his wife, she lets slip to their other neighbor, a crazy old man with his own gun, that spies live on the other side of her, leading to some action, which is in rather short supply here. A family drama evolves piecemeal in flashbacks to a beach picnic at which the father, continuing to be distraught in the aftermath of World War II, attempts to hang himself while his brother looks on immobile. While key characters are young people, even their dramas of pet parades and teenage nervous breakdowns are unlikely to interest American readers. Even incidents involving Matilda's imaginary companion are strangely flat and unappealing. This plot and its characters won't motivate most children to follow the slow story to its happy conclusion.
Suzanne GordonCopyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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Read an Excerpt
The Red Shoe
By Ursula Dubosarsky
Roaring Brook PressCopyright © 2006 Ursula Dubosarsky
All rights reserved.
Sunday, April 11, 1954
IN A HOUSE FAR AWAY, right at the end of a long, dusty road deep in the bush at the back of Palm Beach, lived three sisters with their mother, their father, and sometimes their Uncle Paul. The three sisters were called Elizabeth, Frances, and Matilda.
Elizabeth was fifteen. She had long hair in braids and she didn't go to school. She used to go to school, but one day she'd come home with her braids tied up on top of her head with a white ribbon and said she wasn't going back. Their mother had called the doctor, and the doctor agreed with Elizabeth.
"She needs a rest," the doctor said, stroking Elizabeth's tight hand. "She's having a nervous breakdown."
Their mother sat down on a chair in the kitchen and cried.
After a while Elizabeth said, "I am the one having the nervous breakdown, not you."
So their mother got up from the chair, but she was not pleased with Elizabeth. She thought Elizabeth was making it up.
"You can't have a nervous breakdown when you are only fifteen," said their mother.
That's what she told their father on the telephone. He was in the merchant navy, far away on a ship in the middle of the ocean, looking for the enemy with his binoculars.
"YOU CANT HAVE A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN WHEN YOU ARE ONLY FIFTEEN!" their mother shouted into the telephone.
Frances, the middle daughter, was eleven. She had gray eyes and even her hair looked gray, a sort of koala color. She didn't talk much, not when adults were there, anyway, but that made everybody listen to her more. When she finally did say something, it was almost exciting.
"She speaks!" Uncle Paul would cry.
Then everyone would stare at her, and of course she would forget what she was going to say, and she'd wish she'd never opened her mouth in the first place.
Matilda was the youngest. Matilda was six. Some six-year-olds are not sneaky, but Matilda was. Her hair was black and so were her eyes. Even her blood was nearly black and seeped out very, very slowly when she cut herself. She was like a spy.
"You're not brave enough to be a spy," her friend Floreal told her. "You're cowards, all of you."
"My father is brave," Matilda retorted. "He was in the war."
"The war is over now," said Floreal. "And he's not so brave, anyway. I have seen him go white in the face when a big lizard crawled up the back step."
This was true, and it was hard to see how a man who was frightened of a lizard would be much good in a battle. Floreal was blunt and truthful and remembered all sorts of things that other people forgot. He was an unusual friend because he was invisible. He was also very small, only about as tall as a book. If he had been flat, he could have been a bookmark.
"I still think my father is brave," Matilda said to herself. "Anyone can be frightened of a lizard."
The lizard had crawled up the back step one Sunday afternoon when Uncle Paul was visiting and they were eating roast lamb and potatoes and peas and onions for Sunday lunch. Uncle Paul was their father's little brother. He used to come and stay with them when he didn't have to work. Uncle Paul played the piano in restaurants lit by candles while people danced round and round on a shiny floor. He lived in a hotel in the city with clean sheets every day.
They looked alike, the two brothers, but Uncle Paul was more handsome because his hair was longer and he led a wild life. He was hairy altogether, with curling eyelashes like a doll and thick eyebrows, and he even had a mustache with little streaks of silver in it. He had one lock of gray hair on the right side of his head. It had been there since he was a child. It shows I'm a genius, he told them. No matter what I do, it keeps growing back.
Usually Uncle Paul came to visit when their father was away, because it was hard to have two large men in one house. They ate too much, and also when they were both there at once, the laundry room overflowed with pairs of shoes and no one could ever find anything. They used to fight as well, not punching each other, but bellowing even when they were standing face-to-face. They argued about cigarettes and airplanes and how to cut the lawn. Brothers will always fight, sighed their mother, it's in the Bible.
It was because of Elizabeth that their father was at home that Sunday when the lizard crawled up the back step. He should have been on the deck of his ship, but he had come especially because he was worried about Elizabeth. He wanted her to go back to school and do her exams. Elizabeth had a big brain, everyone said so. There was no one else in the family with a brain like hers.
"You are all of you so stupid," said Floreal, "except for Elizabeth."
That Sunday it was two months already since Elizabeth's nervous breakdown. Two months is a long time to stay at home when you are only fifteen. Elizabeth didn't go out to see any of her friends from school. She just sat around the house, reading the newspaper and watching her mother. Some days she took a plastic bucket and went down through the thick twisted bush to the beach and filled it with pale sand. Then she brought it back and dumped the sand in the front yard on the flower bed. Now there was a big pile of sand and the flowers underneath were dying.
Lamb and potatoes and peas and onions — how rich it smelled, how warm! Like spring and summer and winter and autumn all mixed up at once. Matilda sprinkled salt onto her potatoes so they looked like the Snowy Mountains. She forked each mountain whole into her mouth and swallowed them one by one, until she finished the entire range. She felt very good and strong.
"You're greedy," said Floreal. "You're going to be sick."
Matilda poked out her tongue to where she thought he was. She didn't like it when Floreal talked to her when other people were there. It made things difficult. But Floreal did as he pleased.
"I saw some men go in the big house next door this morning," said Matilda.
"Really?" Their mother looked up, alert. The house next door had two stories and a long, wide front garden and a side driveway for cars. It's like a film star's house, their mother said, but nobody lived there, not even a film star, because it was a holiday home. Lots of the houses in the streets around them were like that. In the summer, people came in cars and had parties in the houses and trailed down to the beach. But the rest of the year the streets were empty as a ghost town. There were more trees than houses, more possums than people, their mother said. It's like living at the ends of the earth, said their mother, and in fact it was.
"What did you see?" their father asked Matilda as they finished off the lamb and the last drops of gravy.
"Some men came in a car," Matilda answered. "They looked funny."
She had been playing by herself in the front yard when they came. She had watched them through the fence but they hadn't seen her.
"What sort of funny?" asked their mother.
"What sort of car?" asked their father.
"I don't know," said Matilda. "It was black. They had black hats and coats and umbrellas and they went inside."
"Why umbrellas?" Uncle Paul raised his eyebrows. "It hasn't rained for weeks."
That was true. It was dry as dry, and the red earth was like powder and rock. You weren't allowed to water the garden. The newspaper said you just had to get used to grass being yellow instead of green. Matilda liked that idea.
Perhaps you could get used to things being different colors altogether — the huge ocean could be pink and the sand could be purple.
"Weren't there any women?" asked their mother, sounding desperate, because she was lonely at the ends of the earth.
"There wasn't a mother," Matilda said with certainty. "Or any children."
"Or an auntie or a granny or a dog." Uncle Paul smiled. "Or a little blue parakeet in his cage."
Their father stood up from the table and went over to the door that led from the dining room to the backyard. He pushed open the screen door and looked out, standing on the back step. They could hear the cicadas crying from the tall trees surrounding them, like hundreds of heartbeats. The big house next door seemed to wave in the afternoon sunlight.
"Nobody there now," he said. "And the blinds are down."
Through the open door, wind came in from the Pacific Ocean. They couldn't see the waves from where they lived, but they heard it and smelled it all the time. Uncle Paul smiled again from under his silvery mustache. He was looking at their mother. She was wearing tiny crimson earrings, like drops of blood.
Then their father made a funny sound. "Look!" he said, and his voice was hoarse.
They all got up from the table, except Elizabeth, and looked.
A large gray-green goanna was slowly climbing up the concrete step, out from the tangled bush, through the afternoon heat toward their house, toward their father's feet. Its mouth was hanging open, and it raised one of its knobblyed legs in the air, spreading its toes apart.
"Calm down," said Uncle Paul to their father, because their father was shaking as though he had a fever. He wasn't afraid of Germans or bombs, but he was afraid of lizards. He was afraid of all animals.
"He's a coward," said Floreal.
"Do something, Paul," said their mother urgently. "It's horrible. Do something! Shoo it away."
Now they were all crowding around the door, looking down at the goanna, except Elizabeth. She put her elbows on the table and yawned.
"Can we catch it?" begged Matilda, excited. "I could take it to school for the Pet Parade."
There was to be a Pet Parade at school that week. The prize for the most unusual pet was a huge round green-and-yellow-and-white-and-pink lollipop that sat on her teacher's desk. It had every color in the rainbow, the teacher told them, and it was called an all-day sucker, which meant it would last all day long if you were careful not to chew it. God must have made it, thought Matilda. It must be what they eat in heaven. If she could catch the goanna and take it to school in a bucket, she might win! Matilda bent down and reached out her hand. If she could just get hold of its tail....
Uncle Paul stepped forward and made a kicking motion with his foot.
"Cha-cha-cha!" he grunted through his teeth, and kicked again.
The goanna did not move. Its front leg was suspended in the air. It was still as stone, its mouth gaping and its eyes fixed.
"Don't!" said Matilda, tugging Uncle Paul. "Don't scare him! Let me catch him!"
"It'll bite you, Mattie!" warned their mother.
The goanna raised its head as calmly as a judge, its tongue flicking in and out of its mouth. It hesitated, looking at Matilda through small black eyes as though considering what to do.
"Gara-gara-gara!" said Uncle Paul, showing his teeth.
"Don't!" Matilda wailed.
The goanna made a decision. It wheeled its heavy body around and leaped down the step, running on all four legs surprisingly swiftly, back into the high weeds at the edge of the yard, the dark growth beyond the fence.
"What did you do that for?" Matilda shouted at Uncle Paul.
"Poor Mattie," said Uncle Paul. "Nature lover."
"It must have smelled the meat," said their mother.
Their father walked out of the room. They heard him in the kitchen, opening the fridge, taking out a bottle of beer. He was ashamed because he was so afraid. Elizabeth laid her head on the table. Frances sat down and ate a spoonful of peas.
Uncle Paul leaned over to Matilda and gave her shoulders a squeeze, but she was too angry. She turned her back to him, her face squashed up in crossness.
"Don't think the goanna would have liked school much," he said.
"Go away!" mumbled Matilda.
Why did he do that? She could have won the lollipop, she knew she could have. But none of them cared, not a bit. Now she wouldn't tell them anything more about the people she'd seen in the house next door, about the big black car and the men in their suits and black hats.
There were lots of things she wasn't going to tell them now. There were so many other things they didn't know that she knew. She certainly wasn't going to tell them about the gun.CHAPTER 2
ONE OF THE MEN Matilda had seen going into the big house next door had a gun. It was black and curved, hanging from his belt. Matilda knew it was a gun, a real gun. It was not the first time that she had seen one.
She had seen a gun just like it in the house of the mad old man who lived on the other side of them. Nobody knew she had been in the house of the mad old man. Nobody saw her and she didn't tell anybody. This was partly because she was sneaky, but more because her mother would have been cross. The old man was strange as well as mad, and her mother had told her not to speak to strangers. But sometimes Matilda couldn't help herself.
She hadn't meant to, it had just happened. She had been out in the front garden one afternoon all alone playing with some pebbles, singing a little song she'd made up about a bus and a train, when the mad old man came up the path to get his letters. He didn't shake his walking stick at her as he did at her mother. Instead he stared through his scrunched-up eyes and said, "What are you doing? Eh?"
"Playing," said Matilda.
"Would you like a chocolate biscuit?" asked the old man. "Eh?"
"Yes," said Matilda.
"Come on, then," said the mad old man, gesturing.
He was very old. His arms and legs were covered with long white hairs and his face was all brown and crushed. When he walked he hardly lifted up his feet, and his shoes sounded like rustling newspaper as they scraped along the ground, and then his stick as well. He was wearing a red woolen hat like a lady, and he had a pencil stuck behind his ear.
Matilda put the pebbles into her pocket and followed him down the concrete path to his front door. There were ants scurrying all over the ground, and they bit her toes, hundreds of little black stinging ants.
"What's your name?" he asked her as he pushed open the rusting screen door. "Eh?"
"Matilda," she said, trying to wipe the ants from her feet. The door banged shut behind them. Inside the house it was dark and it smelled of cats and something else. It feels wet, thought Matilda, like a cave. There was a reddish cat lying almost flat on the table in the kitchen, and another one, a brown-and-gray one, curled on top of the stove. They didn't open their eyes, but she knew they were alive because she could see their stomachs moving up and down.
"Here you are," said the old man.
Apart from the cats, the kitchen was neat, neater than theirs. There was a folded tea towel next to the sink and a shining blue metal teapot. There was an open newspaper on the kitchen table, and next to it a biscuit tin. The old man picked it up and pulled off the lid. He had to do it with one hand, because with the other hand he was leaning on his wooden stick, which was twisted at the top like Little Bo Peep's. His hand shook so much as he opened the tin, Matilda thought it was never going to happen. But then:
"Go on, take one," said the old man at last, holding the tin out. "Get on with it, will you?"
The biscuits sat in layers underneath a piece of waxed paper. Matilda was disappointed that they weren't chocolate covered, but only chocolate colored. She reached out her hand and took one.
"Have another," he said, rattling the tin. "Eh!"
So she did.
"Have another," he said again, sounding angry.
Matilda thought she might be going to cry. She took another one and put all three of them in her mouth at once.
"Come in here," said the old man, beckoning as he shuffled into the living room with his stick. "Here's something I bet you've never seen. Eh?"
Matilda followed him into the room. There was a green velvet sofa and two armchairs and on every cushion another cat. There was a long mirror in one corner, moldy, with gold edges. Matilda could just see herself in it, in the shadows.
The old man stood next to the fireplace. He had dropped his stick and was leaning forward. In the dark, his red hat was like a flame. There were bookshelves all along the walls, filled with rows and rows of empty beer bottles.
"What do you think of this, eh?"
The old man lunged over to the mantelpiece and seized a huge silver sword curved like a new moon, which was hanging on a hook above the fireplace where there should have been a picture of trees and a river and cows eating grass.
Matilda screamed and jumped back. The mad old man stood in the middle of the room and whizzed the sword through the air. It sounded like a bird flying by very fast.
Excerpted from The Red Shoe by Ursula Dubosarsky. Copyright © 2006 Ursula Dubosarsky. Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Ursula Dubosarsky is the author of more than 20 books for young readers, including the picture book Rex, published by Roaring Brook Press. She lives with her husband and three children in Sydney, Australia.
URSULA DUBOSARSKY is one of Australia’s leading authors of books for children and young adults. She lives in Sydney.
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