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Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Vine Basket, written by Josanne La Valley. Clarion Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Thomas Allen & Son, 2013. $18.99 ages 10 and up

"At first it was a low, moaning sound. Maybe Ana releasing some pent-up sorrow in her herb-induced sleep. Mehrigul burrowed deeper into her pallet, liking the warmth and the thoughts that filled her head. In a short time she'd get up, borrow Chong Ata's knife, and head for the grapevine patch. Free at last from fear that Ata would find her. There were chores, but today she'd declare a holiday."

I love reading books that have heart; it's an added bonus when they teach me something that matters to my heart and that is brand new to me! I know I don't live under a rock and am pretty aware of what is happening in world communities. But, I had no idea about the Uyghur (pronounced WEEgur) people of East Turkestan. In a note from Mamatjan Juma (Radio Free Asia), we learn a bit about the events that have lead to the life Mehrugil is now experiencing.

"It describes the experiences of a teenage girl struggling to find her way in a world where Uyghurs trying to live a traditional lifestyle are prohibited from doing so because of the Chinese government's cultural and ethnic policies. Many observers feel that Uyghur identity, culture, language, and religion are in danger of being lost forever."

When her older brother Memet leaves the family, much of the work that was his responsibility is turned over to Mehrigul. Her father is always angry, gambling and drinking away what little bit of money they are able to make at market. Her mother has fallen into a depression and spends much of her day in bed, unable to help with the family farm. Her younger sister is in school, which is where Mehrigul very much wants to be, too. If she doesn't attend school, she could be sent far away to work in a factory. It is a troubling thought.

Her grandfather lives with them, and is a basket weaver by trade. Mehrigul learns about making baskets while sitting at his side. When an American woman admires a vine basket that Mehrigul has crafted and wants to buy it, the young girl is at first apprehensive, and then very pleased to have her work so valued. The purchase price is astonishing, but the money is quickly taken by her father. It will help the family if he uses it well! When asked to make more baskets, Mehrigul agrees.

Once home, her father will not allow such useless work. So, she works in secret, and after some trying and heartbreaking incidents, she fashions a bamboo basket with her grandfather's help. It is the only one that she is able to make, but it is stunning and results in hope for the family's future.

This book is beautifully written. It's hard to imagine that it is the debut work of Josanne La Valley. In an author's note she describes the plight of the Uyghur people with compassion and with clear and conscientious research. We are made more aware by reading Mehrigul's story. The politics are obviously complicated, but her storytelling allows her readers to see the untenable position of the family. She creates admirable characters who grow and learn from the experiences. We learn about the desert, its beauty and its terror. We are made aware of the expert craftspeople who work hard to maintain a culture that may be lost. I hope it leads some students to want to learn more about western China and its amazing people. Bravo!

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