Monday, April 01, 2013

Art for Its Own Sake: The Vine Basket by Josanne Le Valley

"Hello," Mehrigul said, the English word she had practiced at school strange in her mouth.

The lady, Abdul explained, was from San Francisco in the United States. She owned a craft shop and was on a buying trip. She was interested in purchasing the vine basket and wondered if Mehrigul had more.

"It is your vine basket she wants," Abdul told her, "and as many more as you can make in any shape or form that pleases you. She thinks your work is very skillful. Mrs. Chazen will return in three weeks. Can you meet us here with whatever you have made?"

Mehrigul could not stop her lips from trembling. Could she do it again?

"What is your price, Mehrigul?"

Times are very hard on the little Uyghur farm in China. Mehrigul's  big brother Memet has left them for the city, and grief over the loss of their eldest child has left her mother sadly depressed and her father angry, taking refuge in alcohol and pulling Mehrigul out of school to work  beside him in the fields.  Her only joy is in the baskets she makes under the tutelage of her elderly grandfather who tells her she has magic and power in her fingers.

But the Chinese law under which the Uyghurs live says that girls over fourteen who are not in school shall be sent by the village cadre to the coastal cities to do factory work.  Mehrigul wants to go back to school, to learn and be with her friend Pati, but she knows that without her brother, her only hope is to make enough money from the American woman to provide for her family over the winter and allow her to return to school before she can be sent away.

Resentful of being out-earned by a mere girl child, her father is angry and spends most of  the 100 yuan her vine basket brings on gambling and drinking with the other men. Secretly, Mehrigul tells no one else, but spends every stolen moment she can, making more grapevine baskets concealing them in the hidden bamboo grove where she and Pati used to play and praying that the basket buyer will return on the promised day to buy them.

But when her father leaves for a convocation of Uyghur men in the mountains, Mehrigul finds her stash of completed baskets gone, and knows that her father has taken them to sell for himself.  She has only a week to try to make more.  Fearful of being sent to the factory if she fails, she is afraid that her hands have lost their magic, their will to create beautiful baskets.  With no one else on her side,  Mehrigul turns to her grandfather to help her do what she has to do.

Josanne LeValley's forthcoming first novel, The Vine Basket (Houghton Mifflin Clarion, 2013), brings a unique setting to this familiar theme of an ambitious girl's longing for education and self-expression in a repressive traditional family. Mehrigul is a strong character who struggles to be seen by her father as a person with abilities and worth, a fight in which many young women are still involved, and LeValley clearly sets forth this situation in her absorbing novel.

"A haunting tale of artistic vision triumphing over adversity,"  says Kirkus Reviews.

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