What delighted anticipation I felt when I heard that Deborah Ellis‘ multi-award-winning Breadwinner Trilogy (The Breadwinner, Parvana’s Journey, and Mud City), after almost a decade since its completion, was becoming a tetralogy! I adamantly hoped for such at the end of my Mud City post: “Although the trilogy is seemingly finished, adding a final fourth which captures Shauzia and Parvana’s reunion would surely be welcome … “
I swear, I didn’t know a thing back then … but if the book gods are feeling ‘ask-and-you-shall-receive’-sort of generous right about now, might I put forth a request that an octology might be in order for the future? If I’m gonna ask, I might as well ask big!
Parvana is 15, and a prisoner who refuses to speak to the American soldiers who question, frighten, even threaten her. Found alone in the bombed-out rubble of a village school, Parvana’s interrogators insist she’s a terrorist and harass her day and night about her involvement. In spite of her fearful silence, for the first time, Parvana has a clean room to herself; someone with a conscience recognizes she’s still a child and doesn’t throw her in with adults, while someone else has a heart and slips her food against orders. And even though her captors insist on piping in Donny Osmond’s cloying “Puppy Love” at ridiculous decibels at all hours, Parvana is still able to slip into her past, and remember her mother’s dedication to educating girls regardless of the growing threats, her fights and quibbles with her older sister Nooria and adopted brother Asif, her decision not to reveal the gatekeeper Mr. Fahir’s secret, the villagers’ chilling reactions to the opening of Leila’s Academy of Hope … and how she ended up an American prisoner.
Reading – and recalling the books she once read – helps Parvana stay sane, from the packaged food wrappers to the Robert Frost poem she remembers with longing. “Who would want to shoot somebody after reading ‘Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening’ or ‘Casey at the Bat’?,” she muses, envisioning how soldiers might stop their fighting to read each other “a great poem,” or swap chapters printed on ration wrappers with one another until whole books were pieced together. While she dreams she could be hired to choose such books, she tries hard not to think about the women who torture prisoners: “Women in the West could do anything they wanted. So why would they choose to do that?”
With still widespread social problems like child marriage and other brutality against women and girls, unpunished deaths, and references to Abu Ghraib, Parvana is a sobering read. Ellis depicts post-Taliban Afghanistan with eyes wide open, sugar-coating nothing. As foreign countries plan withdrawal from an unstable country still mired in poverty and violence, Ellis notes, “the war continues, and it is not clear who might be the winner in the end.”
While governments battle, life goes on for the Afghan people. “Individuals like Parvana, Shauzi, and Mrs. Weera are working to make life better. They, and the many many Afghan women, men, and children like them, are the ones the world needs to support. We owe it to them.” Ellis’s own support is especially inspiring: she’s raised over a million dollars in royalties for Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan and Street Kid International with the first three Breadwinner titles alone. As Parvana’s story continues, imagine how a few more titles will add to Ellis’ golden giving pot!
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult