Circle of Cranes, by Annette LeBox (Dial, April, 2012, upper middle grade), is the story of an orphaned Chinese girl, 13 year old Suyin. Her father died, and her mother disappeared when she was little, and her paternal grandfather was so angry at this that he forbid any of the women in the village to teach Suyin any of the embroidery for which her mother was famous. So she has grown up passed from one family to another, and deprived of the heritage of her Miao ancestors--the women from this minority group define themselves in large part by their skill with the needle.
But Suyin is blessed with a preternatural skill for languages. And so, when a clearly untrustworthy human trafficker offers passage to America for one of the villagers--at a steep price--Suyin, who speaks English, is chosen to go. The expectation is that American dollars will flow back to the village, paying of the dept and bringing prosperity.
Suyin does not want to go. How can she leave her beloved cranes, the birds with whom she feels a strange kinship, birds that she has actually visited and spoken with in their own dream-like land? They had promised that someday she might be one of them--a crane woman, able to fly--but how can this dream come true in America?
The voyage is hellish--children packed for weeks in the hold of a derelict vessel. And instead of being the promised Golden Land, New York is a land of sweatshops and virtual slavery for the children, a place where brutal enforcers deal with any attempt to rebel, or escape. Suyin, who cannot sew, earns only a pittance in the garment making sweatshop, and her future seems bleak indeed.
But the cranes have not abandoned her. Indeed, they are pinning their own hopes on her. For the Queen of the Cranes was Suyin's mother, who disappeared years ago, and without her, there is no future for the clan. If Suyin can prove herself worthy (and if she can learn to sew, for the cranes, like the Miao women, pass down wisdom and beauty through their stitchery), there is hope.
Except that it is hard to be worthy when being ground down by the miseries of a life of brutal labor.
But cranes teach her embroidery, and messages written in the secret language of women, passed down through the generations, and hidden in plain sight in the stitches, brings comfort and wisdom. And finally Suyin finds the courage to speak up in public about the plight of the garment workers....and it all resolves to a happy ending.
Circle of Cranes is two stories. There is the realistic story, of the horrible working conditions faced by illegal immigrants--they work in fear of the government, in fear of their bosses, and with little hope. Prostitution is the only clear alternative for these young girls. Then there is the fantasy story, a reimagining of the story of the Crane Wife (the story of a woman torn between life as a bird and her human family is Japanese, not so much Chinese, but the author's endnote says has "roots in many Asian cultures"). Each is vivid and compelling in its own right, with the realistic elements being a grippingly eye-opening story, and the fantasy elements making a magical counterpoint.
It didn't, however, work perfectly for me. Though I was fascinated, especially by the details of the embroidery, the contrast between the two aspects of the book was great, so much so that I was not always convinced by the magical reality of it as a whole! I have to confess that a personal prejudice of my own came into play--I really get creeped out when a human person starts to sprout feathers (Suyin only has one feather, and it falls out quickly, but still). But that is just me. And the tidy resolution, in which the human identities of the crane women were revealed, seemed a bit much (all the important women in Suyin's life seem to be crane women...).
But in any event, this is one I'd give to the young (11 to 13 year old) lover of fairy tale retellings, for whom the magic of the cranes might well ring true, and whose heart might be deeply moved by Suyin's horrible experience in New York. It might especially appeal to those who want a lovely, magical daydream to lift them out of quotidian, possibly unpleasant, reality....
Final though: I think this is my favorite cover of the year so far. Isn't it beautiful?