The Vine Basket by Josanne La Valley
In East Turkestan, Mehrigul’s beloved brother has left the family and now her father is always angry and her mother has taken to bed. Mehrigul is forced to leave school and help out on the family farm. She also works the family market stall which is where her vine basket, created in the form of a cone rather than a more useful shape, is spotted by an American woman who offers to buy it for a very high sum. But her father just drinks and wagers away the money, leaving the family still on the brink of ruin. There are political pressures too with the Chinese pushing the Uyghur people to conform. If Mehrigul does not return to school, she could be sent to work in a Chinese factory. But there is one ray of hope and that is that the American woman asked for more baskets. It will take time and determination for Mehrigul to complete the baskets for her, especially once her father forbids her to do it.
I seriously could not believe this was a debut book. La Valley writes with such assurance and skill, building a world that makes sense to those unfamiliar with the Uyghur and East Turkestan. She also neatly explains very complicated politics in a way that children will understand thanks to the perspective of Mehrigul and her family. La Valley does not shy away from the difficult family situation she has created, clearly creating a world where there are no real villains just adults dealing with impossible situations.
Yet there are heroes. They come in the form of more than the American buyer too. Mehrigul’s grandfather is one of these, as he works impossibly hard and still supports her dreams and skills with baskets. Mehrigul herself is certainly a heroine as well, creating beauty with an incredible humility, taking on tasks far beyond someone as young as she is, and holding her family together.
La Valley never forgets to instill beauty into the world she is telling us about. We learn about the Uyghur rugs, music and art. We learn about the beauty of the desert, the sting of the sand, the wonder of the sudden rain, and the treasures of true friendship and family. It is in this mix of destitution and beauty that this book truly shines. It is a book that enters the very heart of the reader and takes up residence. Beautiful, haunting, cruel and wondrous, this is one amazing read. Appropriate for ages 12-15.
Reviewed from digital galley received from NetGalley.