While in the midst of moving from Knoxville to Birmingham nearly 4 years ago, a lady reached out to me telling me that a colleague of hers, also an author, was a follower and fan of my blog and had recently passed away, she asked if she could send me a copy of her friend’s books. I agreed, not knowing what type of books the lady had written and didn’t think much of it. In the chaos that is moving, I received the books and boxed them up and then unboxed them and vaguely remembered that they were about Muslims in China. I put them in the to be read pile and just never got to them. Then as the plight of the Uyghurs started to be known here in the US, something tickled my brain, but nothing came of it, until recently when I realized, a lady, a non Muslim years ago was trying to tell the Uyghur’s story, and had reached out to me, and I didn’t get it, and still wasn’t getting it. So alas, I have now read the Vine Basket, and while it might not present Islam the way we are used to seeing it in life and in print, the characters do identify as Muslim and this middle grade book is a simply woven, beautiful story that gives voice to a population that is horrifically being silenced. The AR 5.0, 252 page book is a quiet book that will stay with me: the drunken father, the threat of being sent to a factory, the loss of tradition; I am so glad I read the book, and only wish I could reach out to the author to hear more about her knowledge of the region, of the people, of the culture that is being erased.
Mehrigul is 14, and since her older brother left, she has been forced to leave school to help her father sell goods in the marketplace. More often than not though, it is solely Mehrigul’s responsibility as her father drinks and gambles away the meager earnings the family makes. Her mother, ashamed of the poverty the family endures along with some presumed mental illness and headaches, seeps further and further away from the reality of life and the chores that need to be done to ensure food and survival of the family. Her younger sister is the only spark in a dreary and difficult life, and Mehrigul is determined that she should stay in school and be shielded from the darkness hanging over the family.
One day while in the market, an American woman approaches Mehrigul and asks to purchase a frivolous grape vine basket Mehrigul had made and hung to decorate the cart. She offers her 100 yuan, more money than Mehrigul has ever seen, and asks her to make more baskets, and that she will be back in a month to purchase them. The basket serves no purpose like the willow baskets her grandfather weaves and despite the money, Mehrigul’s father is not happy.
Mehrigul is forbidden from making the baskets for the American, and the fact that she will even return is dismissed. Her father grows increasingly cruel toward Mehrigul and keeps her busy to prevent her from making more. Mehrigul seeks solace in her elderly infirm grandfather who tries to help her find inspiration and time to make her baskets as he sees in her a gift that has value in their old culture. At one point as her father steals her baskets to take on a “religious” pilgrimage to the mountains. And her planting crops in the fields leaves her hands cut and swollen, unable to make more with just days left before the American lady is due to return.
WHY I LIKE IT:
At first I was really uncomfortable with the idea of a white American savior coming to a dying oppressed culture to offer hope, until I read the afterwards and understood that much of the story was inspired by the author’s own experience and that she worked with Uyghur’s to get the story right. The book reads like historical fiction which makes the day to day life of this modern book all the more heart breaking, it isn’t about the past it is the present, and life in East Turkestan is bleak. I like the character of the father, he is an abusive mess, yet somehow it isn’t that easy to write him off, he has his own struggles and the depth of character I found in him, in a middle grades book, is haunting. I also really like how Mehrigul’s story is so foreign to us here in America, yet her emotions and insights are universal and thus relatable. She wants to find her place, and excel, and help her family, and she is scared, doesn’t know who to trust, and takes on more than most children any where should, but often are forced to do.
The characters identify as Muslim and as a people the Uyghurs are Muslim. They say salam in the story, but only to the grandfather, and the girls all cover their hair with scarves. The father obviously drinks and gambles, two practices, not permitted in Islam. Mehrigul fastens a talisman and connects her prayers to it as a form of worship which I would imagine is cultural perhaps, and when things go awry she remarks she should have prayed to Allah swt. The father goes on a pilgrimage to a mountain shrine, which again seems off from traditional Islam, but is presented in the book instead as odd because the father is not normally religious. Islam is not a big part of the book, so it is hard to know if the representation of it are isolated to who the author met, or a larger norm of the community. Considering how isolated and oppressed the Uyghurs are, I tried really hard to suspend judgement, or offer my privileged limited critique of the people.
Drinking, gambling, abusive father, anger, lying, deception.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I would consider this for a middle grades or even middle school book club, there is so much going on in China and in the erasing of Islam there that this book would supplement the news and few stories we are hearing. It opens up the culture and gives it a face that is not political, but personal. The faults of the father are not glorified at all, and the discussion about his desire to hold on to culture and fear about his daughter surpassing him would be fascinating to hear from people the protagonists age.