"The chill of the night air enveloped Mehrigul as she looked out at the stark silhouette of leafless trees, a harbinger of the long, cold winter ahead. Fallen leaves scuttled across the field, stirred by the winds blowing from the Taklamkan. The winds that had from time unknown swept over their land, trying to bury them under layers of drifting sand.
"The Uyghurs had learned to hold back the desert. It was neither friend nor enemy. But the Han sweeping over their land were nothing like the ebb and flow of drifting sands. The Han had come to stay. And they'd driven Memet away.
"And we who are still here -- what should we do? Do we have a choice? Mehrigul squeezed her knees against her body, folding herself into a tight ball -- against the cold air and the powers that were overwhelming her people. Those who stayed had to do what the cadre ordered. And someone in a far-off place was telling himwhat to do. Someone who didn't like the sound of their beautiful Uyghur language, or the way they lived. Someone who didn't seem to want them here."
Having read Uri Shulevitz's HOW I LEARNED GEOGRAPHY hundreds of times while a member of the ALSC award committee that voted him a Caldecott Honor for that book, I readily recognize the name Turkestan as a place on the eastern edge of the former USSR. Other than that, I knew nothing of Turkestan or, more specifically, East Turkestan, where THE VINE BASKET takes place.
Thanks to reading THE VINE BASKET, I now have a vivid image in my head of this region. This alone makes it a book worth my writing about. That I've also come to learn of the manner in which young women like Mehrigul are treated in this society (which makes the male-dominated Texas Legislature look like a bastion of enlightenment), is another great reason to recommend your checking this one out.
But what will also stay with me is the story of this creative young woman who has an awesome grandfather and who has to deal with a fearful and idiotic drunk of a father and a passive, withdrawn mother. This means relying upon and confiding in that one person who is really there for her. The relationship between Mehrigul and Chong Ata (her grandfather) is the real heart of this story (and, yes, I mean that in several ways).
Chong Ata is a crafter of baskets. Mehrigul has learned his craft well and has fabricated a whimsical basket that is decorating the family donkey cart. It catches the eye of an American tourist visiting the marketplace where Mehrigul is selling her family's minimal produce (while her father is off in the market drinking and gambling). At fourteen years-old, Mehrigul should be in school, but her brother is a separatist who has necessarily left town, so her father has forced her to stay home and work, which exposes her to the possibility of eventually being sent off to work in a Chinese factory.
"'Chong Ata, may I borrow your knife?' It was lying on the ground in front of him. She knew he wouldn't need it for a while. 'I need to cut more vines,' she said.
"He nodded. "Use it well, Granddaughter. It is now our knife."
The American tourist woman offers Mehrigul a relatively enormous price for her basket and promises to return in three weeks to purchase whatever more baskets she can create in that time. THE VINE BASKET is the powerful story of Mehrigul's life during these three weeks.
This is a notable and memorable first novel.
252 pages 978-0-547-84801-3