Middle Grade Review: The Vine Basket by Josanne La Valley

Vine BasketFrom Goodreads: Things aren’t looking good for fourteen-year-old Mehrigul. She yearns to be in school, but she’s needed on the family farm. The longer she’s out of school, the more likely it is that she’ll be sent off to a Chinese factory . . . perhaps never to return. Her only hope is an American woman who buys one of her decorative vine baskets for a staggering sum and says she will return in three weeks for more. Mehrigul must brave terrible storms, torn-up hands from working the fields, and her father’s scorn to get the baskets done. The stakes are high, and time is passing. A powerful intergenerational story of a strong, creative young artist in a cruelly oppressive society.

I previously wrote this about the book:

“This was an interesting one to compare to A Girl Called Problem as they were both written by people who were not from the culture they were writing about but had traveled to the region and were taken by the people. But the writing in this one was so polished. It was such a beautiful story that focused less on the historical event of what was going on, although it did emphasize the plight of the Uyghr people (I’m sure I spelled that incorrectly, but they are an ethnic group in Western China), and more on developing the characters, the relationships, the setting, and the story. It was a quiet story without a lot of dramatic plot points, but it was beautiful and hopeful.”

I have new thoughts about the book, but I want to first say that I’m rerunning this because China is currently cracking down on Uyghurs, sending them to “re-education camps” (sound like something the US and Canada did to the Indigenous people here?) and imprisoning them. They are even reaching out to Uyghurs living in different parts of the world including the US and threatening to do things to family still in China. It’s an ugly, ugly situation that is not getting enough media attention.

The Vine Basket is a very problematic book, but it’s also the only one I’m aware of that introduces kids to this minority. My recommendation is to educate yourself on the Uyghurs, their history and their current plight, and then read this book with your kids and use it as a tool to open up conversations.

To start with the good, this was a beautiful, quiet story. As I said before it really develops the characters and their relationships. You also get a good feel for the region the Uyghrs live in and a glimpse into their culture. The writing did a really good job of invoking the place where the story takes place and the author had visited so I get the sense that she drew on her experience there. I think that despite all the problems you can come away from the book with a feel for the Uyghurs homeland and a sympathy for the people. The other really key piece to notice here is the Mehrigul’s brother is said to be a part of the resistance to the Chinese government. We don’t really meet him in the book, but he comes up on several occasions. This opens up the conversation about how the Uyghurs are fighting for their rights and engaging in activism, meaning they aren’t passively needing white ladies to come save them *ahem*.

So this is certainly a hopeful story, but it’s also a story with a white savior. It doesn’t give all the power to the white woman who comes in and discovers the baskets as the story centers Mehrigul, but it’s a white savior nonetheless. I also don’t think it’s untrue that Mehrigul’s family might need to send her off to work in a factory to help them make money, but the framing around that sets it up so Mehrigul needs to seek help from the white lady who comes along. I also don’t know how accurate the relationships are within the context of the culture. Mehrigul’s father is not interested in supporting her making baskets to sell and isn’t particularly kind to her and that may be the lack of an #ownvoices story giving the relationship an outsider, Western view. I can’t say how the Uyghurs truly feel about girls, it’s entirely possible that there are father-daughter relationships like this, but it’s also equally easy to find those same relationships here in the US, so it’s hard to blame this distance and lack of support solely on the Uyghur culture. I also really despise that fact that the book description calls it a “cruelly oppressive culture”. That sounds like an outsider’s opinion and it sounds inappropriate given the source.

I don’t really think buying this book sends the right message, but if your library has it you should hand sell it to your activist parents noting the timeliness of the topic. If you’re a parent or classroom teacher, see if your library already has a copy and use that to discuss what’s currently happening around the Uyghurs now. Share the problems with this book while reading the story. Learn about the Uyghurs (from Uyghur sources and more open Western sources) and compare what you learn to what the story shows. Again, I’m recommending not buying the book, but using it to carefully bring attention and sympathy to what is shamefully happening right now.

If you want a book that is more #ownvoices (as much as book written from the perspective of a dog can be) and set in Western China, check out Black Flame which is an incredible book.