Girl in big trouble as she flees home in search of sister

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 June, 2009, 12:00am

The Red Dress
By Gaby Halberstam
Published by MacMillan Children's Books
ISBN 978 0 330 45053 9

Books take us to all sorts of places at different times and introduce us to many different people. The Red Dress is set in South Africa in 1944, a place and time that few readers will know about, leaving author Gaby Halberstam a wide, blank canvas on which to paint her story.

Fourteen-year-old Rifke Lubetkin is the daughter of Jewish immigrants to Johannesburg.

The Jewish families there have formed a tightly knit community hanging onto the values and traditions the older generation brought with them to the new land.

Like most teenagers faced with growing up in a traditional society, Rifke has a lot she needs to question and challenge.

Rifke is a very dissatisfied young lady. When she was young, her father walked out, leaving Mrs Lubetkin to raise two young daughters alone. The single mother couldn't afford to look after both girls, so Rifke's sister went to live with an aunt and uncle in the town of Kimberley.

The girls are now teenagers, and Rifke is jealous of the happy life her sister leads in a nice house with loving people.

Since her husband walked out, Mrs Lubetkin has become a very bitter and nagging woman. Mother and daughter get along like a cat and a dog in a cage, and Rifke would do anything to escape and live with her sister.

One day, after yet another bitter argument, Rifke runs away. Without buying a ticket, she scrambles onto a train out of the city and hides in the freight van, assuming it must be heading for Kimberly. But before she can assess her situation, Rifke is dumped in the middle of the desolate South African plains, far from civilisation.

She is taken in by an isolated farming family because there isn't another train for a month.

The plot rattles along at a nice pace, but there is a safeness about it that does not quite ring true.