Essay by Clare Bradford

In 1989 Ursula Dubosarsky published her first book, Maisie and the Pinny Gig, illustrated by Roberta Landers. Since then, Dubosarsky’s novels, picture books, illustrated books and non-fiction texts have engaged diverse audiences ranging from very young children to older readers. Among her body of work, the novels The First Book of Samuel (1995), The Red Shoe (2006) and The Golden Day (2011) have attracted high praise, along with the non-fiction book The Word Spy (2008), illustrated by Tohby Riddle. The Red Shoe stands out for its evocation of Cold War Sydney, viewed from the perspective of the 21st century; for historical fiction never simply delivers the past but interprets it in the light of the values and cultural norms of its own time. The book’s title identifies the red shoe as its symbolic centre, but in fact the narrative is structured around multiple red shoes, the stories of which intermingle and glance off one another.

The narrative concerns three sisters, Elizabeth, Frances and Matilda, and begins with a scene in which six-year-old Matilda snuggles up under an eiderdown in the bed of 11-year-old Frances who reads her Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale ‘The Red Shoes’. Frances’s reading is punctuated by passages in which Matilda tries to imagine herself into the story’s setting, which seems strange and foreign to a girl living in Palm Beach in Sydney, in 1954. Andersen’s story ends in the death of its protagonist, Karen, and incorporates the gruesome detail of the amputation of Karen’s feet when she is unable to escape from the red shoes, which will not let her stop dancing. Matilda associates Karen’s wooden feet and crutches with a real-life experience she had, when she saw a little girl ‘in a tartan coat with metal where her socks should be’ (p. 9) who had contracted poliomyelitis. Although Frances assures Matilda that ‘The Red Shoes’ has a happy ending, Matilda is affronted at the idea that Karen’s death might in any way be regarded as happy, even if it involves her going to heaven.

This scene, with its reading of ‘The Red Shoes’, introduces a sense of slippage between real-life events and the interpolation of such events into stories told and imagined by Matilda and her two sisters. The references to mutilation and death which occur in ‘The Red Shoes’, and Matilda’s emotional response to the story, convey a foreboding which is all the more powerful because of the narrative’s strategy of focalising much of the action through Matilda’s perspective. As we are introduced to her perceptions of what she sees about her – in particular, the behaviour of adults and the complexities of Cold War politics – we are positioned to fill in the gaps left by Matilda’s imperfect understanding. At the same time, the setting of the story-telling emphasises the close relationship between the two sisters, vividly symbolised by the closeness of their bodies as they lie together in Frances’s bed.

A second ‘red shoes’ allusion occurs at the end of Frances’s reading of the story, when Matilda is reminded of her mother’s red shoes, with their ‘golden buckles and shiny black heels’ (p. 10–11). While these shoes seem glamorous and grown-up to Matilda, through the course of the narrative they gather troubling associations. The girls’ father, a seaman in the merchant navy, suffers from what is called ‘nerves’ following his war service, and the narrative of The Red Shoe circles around a family picnic at the Basin on Boxing Day, 1954, when he attempts to hang himself. Allusions to this episode are introduced in Chapter Three (p. 31) and at the end of Chapter Six (p. 56), and it appears in the form of four flashbacks (p. 72–81; 130–5; 130–5; 143–7; 169) narrated over the Easter period in 1954. Matilda’s mother wears her red shoes to the Boxing Day picnic, where Matilda tries them on. She climbs a tall tree, dropping one of the red shoes in shock when from her vantage-point high in the tree she looks down to see her father hanging from the branch of a ghost gum.

The third ‘red shoe’ reference relates to the dramatic events of the Petrov Affair, involving the defection of two Soviet agents and the repercussions of these events in Australian culture and politics. Following his defection, Vladimir Petrov is installed in a safe house next door to the family’s home, and is recognised by Matilda in a newsreel. Later, when his wife Evdokia Petrov defects, she loses one of her red shoes at Mascot Airport in Sydney, in the crush of onlookers attempting to prevent her forced return to the Soviet Union. This incident is described in the novel by way of an excerpt from The Sydney Morning Herald, one of many such extracts interspersed throughout the narrative. Finally, when the girls’ father returns to the family after a protracted absence at sea, he brings a gift for his wife: a pair of red, embroidered slippers from Japan. His entry into the house, ‘like a giant, his arms full of gifts’ (p. 174), seems to signal a turning-point, as though the slippers afford a kind of resolution to the lost shoe of the Basin episode, when their father attempted suicide.

Andersen’s story and the newspaper account of Evdokia Petrov’s red shoe function as intertextual references, though of different kinds. In his discussion of intertextuality, John Stephens identifies various ways in which texts communicate their relationships with other texts. Frances’s reading of Andersen’s story refers to a specific pre-text through direct quotations, while allusions to the Petrov Affair are effected through what Stephens refers to as ‘socio-historical narratives or moments’ (p. 85) depicted in newspaper articles. The novel’s title thus refers to multiple stories and incidents, producing an effect which might be termedbricolage. The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss uses this word to distinguish between two kinds of knowledge. He says that mythological thought typically makes use of a repertoire of pre-existing elements, whereas scientists commence with a goal and select elements and methods which will enable this goal to be achieved (p. 16–32). Jacques Derrida extends Lévi-Strauss’s treatment of bricolage, concluding that the text or creative work produced throughbricolage is characterised by play with ideas and with language. Bricolage, he remarks, consists of an assemblage of elements, with no central truth and no common origin (p. 360–64). A similar understanding of writing informs Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead,in which Atwood describes writing as resembling ‘the ways of the jackdaw: we steal the shiny bits, and build them into the structures of our own disorderly nests’ (p. xix). The Red Shoefunctions, then, as a bricolage, an assemblage of ‘shiny bits’ built into a narrative structure that shifts between events which take place over Easter 1954, and the picnic at the Basin on Boxing Day of the same year.

The Red Shoe refuses a direct and linear narrative exposition in favour of a compilation of elements which already exist, such as Andersen’s story, or media images of Evdokia Petrov, set alongside elements invented for the purposes of the novel – for instance, the smart red shoes of the girls’ mother, and the red slippers their father gives her at the end of the narrative. These elements gain meaning from the way they evoke memories and associations. For instance, the amputated feet of Karen in ‘The Red Shoes’ enter into a new set of associations when Matilda connects them to her memory of the little girl she saw, with her ‘metal legs and crutches’ (p. 9) and of her mother’s remonstrations ‘don’t look, girls, don’t look’ (p. 9). The example of the girl in the tartan coat suggests that it is not only in fairy tales that little girls lose the use of their feet, but that such a calamity might befall any child growing up in the 1950s. Her mother’s admonition not to look at the girl introduces another element. By itself the mother’s intervention suggests a variety of explanations; but in conjunction with other hints, incidents and expressions it conveys a familial and political climate in which expressions of emotion are repressed or denied. Elizabeth, the eldest of the three sisters, articulates this principle when she reassures Matilda that in the event of a nuclear explosion, the destruction of the world will be drastic and immediate: ‘You won’t know anything about it at all. It’s only knowing things that makes you afraid’ (p. 81).

Historical fiction never simply reprises an historical period, but always filters perceptions of and attitudes towards the past through the perspectives of its own time. The past is often understood as the prehistory of the present, so that the events depicted in historical fiction are attributed with meanings retrospectively explained in relation to the now of the writer. This is especially the case in the novel’s treatment of gender, which by implication compares views of femininity in the 1950s with those of the 21st century. In addition to news items about Evdokia Petrov, The Red Shoe incorporates extracts which highlight stories about girls and women: the refusal of the Court of Criminal Appeal to allow the serial killer Caroline Grills to appeal her sentence (p. 14); the life story of Roberta Cowell, ‘the Spitfire pilot who is now a woman’ (p. 42); the attempted suicide of a 19-year-old woman (p. 57). These allusions to scandalous or controversial women butt up against the domestic setting where the three sisters live with their mother and their often-absent father, whose younger brother, the girls’ Uncle Paul, is a frequent visitor. At the beginning of the novel 15-year-old Elizabeth is, in the words of the doctor, ‘having a nervous breakdown’ (p. 15) and refuses to attend school, while the girls’ mother, involved in a relationship with Paul, is ‘lonely at the ends of the earth’ (p. 20) at Palm Beach. This bricolage of references to girls and women foregrounds a sense of entrapment and pointlessness exacerbated by the Cold War setting, with its warnings about nuclear war, the dangers of communism, and the imminence of global destruction. The restricted and anxious lives of girls and women throw into relief the relative freedom and agency of men, whose working lives and occupations locate them outside the domestic domain.

The girl characters in The Red Shoe act out varieties of resistance to the constraints they experience. Elizabeth withdraws from public life, spending her days reading the newspaper; Frances resolves to ‘grow up very soon’ (p. 150) and to escape the family home; Matilda spies on the people in the safe house where Vladimir Petrov resides, and conducts conversations with her imaginary companion, Floreal. It is six-year-old Matilda who most pushes against the family’s unspoken prohibitions. When she tells her own truth about the picnic at the Basin – that she saw Paul observing his brother’s suicide attempt without doing anything to prevent it – this revelation recalibrates relations within the family, leading to a narrative outcome in which the girls’ father returns, Elizabeth decides against suicide, Paul departs the family, and, at the end of the novel, ‘Matilda was not afraid at all’ (p. 178).

Anticipating the social and cultural changes of the 1960s, when the effects of second-wave feminism filtered through to girls growing into womanhood, The Red Shoe signals these shifts in gender politics. The novel’s closure thus proleptically constructs a world where the three girls are liberated from restrictive versions of femininity. Having walked out of the icy water in which she intended to drown herself, Elizabeth returns to the solidity of the land, feeling ‘relieved of something heavy and hard’ (p. 173). Frances goes to visit the mother of Mark, a young boy in her class who once asked her to marry him, and learns for herself what she has feared to know, that he has died of polio. Once back in the house the three sisters sit together on the sofa, their arms and legs entwined, as they used to sit before their unease drew them apart from each other. Matilda experiences the sensation of ‘feeling her bones getting longer and longer’, (p. 176) and looks to a time when she will be taller than her sisters, perhaps ‘the tallest woman in the world and she could join a circus’ (p. 176). The girls’ new closeness suggests that the fragmented narratives associated with the various red shoes of the novel are now swept into an optimistic moment which promises a better future, one rich in possibilities.


Referenced works

Atwood, M. Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. New York: Random House, 2002.

Derrida, J. Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. London: Routledge, 2001.

Dubosarsky, U. The Red Shoe. Crows Nest NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2006.

Lévi-Strauss, C. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.

Stephens, J. Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction. London: Longman, 1993.

Additional material

There is a wealth of excellent material on the Petrov Affair. See, for instance:

National Museum of Australia


© Copyright Clare Bradford 2014