Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Vine Basket by Josanne La Valley

When my daughter was young I spent 10 years as a rosemaling artist selling painted wood with decorative flowers to local specialty shops. Scandinavians in the community had a nostalgia for crafts representing their heritage and the rosemaling I did reflected different areas of Norway. People liked that I could replicate rosemaling from Valdres, Rogaland, Telemark, Hadeland, and Gudsbrandal. I took many classes and tried to hone my craft, but I never quite had that flare that made my work stand above the rest. Not like the artist, Sigmund Aarseth, a Norwegian man whose work was so stunning it made me gasp and feel amateurish in comparison. Fourteen-year-old Mehrigul, in "The Vine Basket," is like the "Sigmund Aarseth" of basket weaving. She has that creative gift that makes her basket look original and museum-worthy. The problem is women were not basket weavers in her time; only the men in the village worked at this craft. When an American woman buys a basket Mehrigul made for quite a bit of money, Mehrigul must decide not only if she will make more baskets and break into a male-dominated tradition, but she must defy her father who has forbidden her to make more baskets because it will interfere with her chores.

Mehrigul's father needs her to help on the farm. Her family is facing a plethora of problems after her brother ran away upsetting her parents so deeply that her father has addiction problems and her mother is depressed, leaving Mehrigul responsible for the family. The family has also fallen on hard times and live in poverty. Mehrigul does her best caring for her younger sister, fragile grandfather, and farm. Her father has pulled her from school and she is in fear of being forced to work in a Chinese factory in the south. Things seem desperate until an American woman says she will return in three weeks to buy as many baskets as Mehrigul can make. But with all her responsibilities, a dust storm that has destroyed their winter storage of food, and an abusive father, the task seems impossible. It isn't until some of the adults stand up to her father that change and healing seem possible, as well as, the task of making a basket for the foreign woman.

Uyghur is located in East Turkistan where the Communist Chinese took over its inhabited lands in the 1940s suppressing the cultural, religious and ethical identity of the people. This story tackles issues of the Chinese conquering the Uyghurs taking their lands and eradicating their language and customs. Mehrigul's plight is desperate and her family's plunge into poverty creates a bleakness that lets up only when she deals with her kind grandfather, sweet sister, friend Pani, and creation of weaving baskets. Mehrigul is angry at her parents and the changes in her city. She learns to deal with it throughout the novel but it is not easy. She also doesn't recognize that she has mistaken what she thought was her father's anger to one of fear.

Mehrigul changes from a subservient girl who obeys her parents and does not talk back to one who recognizes that what they are doing is wrong and that she needs to find the strength to stand up for herself. I would have liked the father's character developed more so I could have more empathy toward him. He is shown as a man with a serious addiction and to suddenly be responsible at the end was too big of a turnabout. I like that he changed but it didn't seem authentic. However, what came across as very real is the struggles of the members of Mehrigul's family with a domineering father and the importance of having a son in Chinese culture; this is prevalent even in today's culture as it was in the past.

The plot was predictable, but there is plenty of tension as Mehrigul fears her father, the cadre, the destructive storm, the pain of farming, to name a few. I was a bit confused at first because the author drops into a close up of the action. Mehrigul's situation is slowly doled out to the reader as the political and family situation unfolds. This is a nice way to not overwhelm the reader with too many details but it can also be confusing. Or maybe it is just confusing to non-detailed people like myself. I thought Ana was Mehrigul's sister for quite a while before I learned it was her mother. I also wasn't sure how the farm and market worked. Did the family farm some days and go to the market others? Or did they go to the market in the morning and farm in the afternoon? Like I said, I struggled with the big picture at first, but eventually a setting began to form in my imagination and the questions were answered. It felt like I started out the story with a telephoto lens and as the story went along and the lens zoomed out, the plot came into focus.

There are quite a few details describing how Mehrigul makes baskets, but one element that seems missing in this craft process is a description of her grandfather being a superior craftsman who mentors her.  Learning a skilled craft is extremely difficult and while the story explains how Mehrigul helped her grandfather over the years, the actual leap from beginner to master artisan seemed to come too easy for someone who had just struck out on her own. What this book does portray well is a complex character and unfamiliar culture that avoids stereotypes and touches on current issues that are true even today. This is a dialogue worth having and would be a good book club choice for older readers.

3 Smileys

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