Mehrigul is a fourteen year old Uyghur girl. Her Chong Ata, or grandfather, remembers what life was like for Uyghurs in East Turkestan before the Chinese came and made East Turkestan Xinjiang.
Mehrigul’s brother Memet used to help his father on their farm. He was involved in a protest against the Han Chinese occupation of East Turkestan and had to flee the area. This means Mehrigul must leave school and help her father on the farm. A Uyghur girl who is not in school can be sent to China to work in a factory. This is a constant fear for Mehrigul. But one market day, as Mehrigul tries to sell items from her family’s farm while her father is off drinking and gambling, an American woman comes and asks to purchase a vine basket that Mehrigul made. The American woman offers Mehrigul the unheard of sum of 100 yuan for the basket. She tells Mehrigul that when she returns in three weeks she will buy all the baskets Mehrigul has been able to make by that time. Mehrigul’s father, on hearing this, demands that Mehrigul spend no time making baskets. It is, he says, a waste of time. Thus begins Mehrigul’s struggle to make baskets secretly, as her father tries to thwart all her attempts.
There is terrible pain and sadness in this book. Mehrigul’s mother has withdrawn into herself and is barely able to help out around the house or on the farm. Her father is angry, constantly lashing out at whoever is in his way. The family all remembers a happier time, a time when Mehrigul’s uncle and his family had lived with them on the farm. The occupation by China has changed everything. Mehrigul’s uncle could no longer earn a living in East Turkestan and had to move his family to China. Set against this pain is Mehrigul’s hope of making baskets and the light that comes from her younger sister Lali.
As it happens, this is a timely book. There is currently a concerning amount of unrest among the Uyghur people in Xinjiang. The Chinese government is trying to stop the unrest. But it’s hard to put down a group of people who have lived in the same place and had the same culture for thousands of years.