Josanne LaValley’s debut novel, The Vine Basket, portrayed village life in the Uyghur homeland of East Turkestan through the eyes of a 14-year-old girl who dreams of carrying on her grandfather’s art of basket weaving. Written for older middle grade readers, the novel raised awareness of the Uyghur people, who live under Chinese occupation and are facing cultural and physical extinction as the nominally Communist government takes over their lands to give to Han Chinese moving into the area. The same thing has been taking place in Tibet since the 1950s, but the plight of Tibetans has received far more publicity than that of the Muslim Uyghurs.
Another tactic the Chinese government has used to destroy Uyghur communities is to “draft” teenage girls to work in factories thousands of miles from home. LaValley explores this aspect of the human rights crisis in Factory Girl, her first novel for YA readers. Sixteen-year-old Roshan, a top student who plans to become a village teacher, is selected under penalty of her father losing his thriving farm. Along with eleven other girls from her region, she takes a harrowing multi-day bus and train ride through narrow mountain passes into a world she never knew existed. She and her Uyghur workmates endure abusive conditions under intense surveillance. Spy cameras are everywhere, as are spies. But secret friends also exist, as Roshan discovers when an ailing girl from their group dies, and several people aid the survivors to give her a proper Muslim burial.
With its sympathetic protagonist and unique and full secondary characters, Factory Girl goes beyond the headlines to immerse readers in the lives of a subset of China’s exploited factory workers – those who work in slavery conditions as a part of a genocidal policy. Through her accessible first person, present-tense narrative LaValley invites readers to imagine what they would do if faced with similar circumstances and in doing so builds empathy for the Uyghur Muslim girls whose lives are in danger. At the root of her story are the bonds of friendship that keep the girls alive and give them at least a little hope. In its characterizations and themes, Factory Girl would make an excellent pair with Meg Wiviott’s Paper Hearts, the award-winning novel in verse that portrays a group of teenage girls thrown together at Auschwitz. LaValley’s brave and well-researched book (with an afterword by the senior editor of the Uyghur Service of Radio Free Asia) shows that atrocities against religious and ethnic minorities continue despite pledges of “never again.”