When the Taliban took over and barred all girls from school, Parvana was glad of the holiday. But it’s getting a bit tiresome to be the only one in the family able to go outside to collect water, and with her mother unable to work, sifting through the family’s belongings for things they can sell in the market has become a regular chore. There’s not much left that can be spared.
When Parvana’s father is arrested — and Parvana and her mother’s attempt to have him released fails — the only means of feeding the family is for Parvana to dress like a boy and take her father’s place in the market. As she and another girl-in-disguise, former classmate Shauzia, work to support their families, other women in the periphery of the story struggle in their own ways to survive, to grow, and to challenge the limitations the Taliban has placed on them.
The Breadwinner is a beautiful, difficult story that offers richly-realised glimpses of life in Afghanistan under the Taliban. While the details of Parvana’s life — such as the repeated loss of “home” due to wartime destruction, and the customers eager to purchase Parvana and her father’s reading and writing skills — are valuable on their own, what I appreciated most was Ellis’s ability to present a variety of strong, unique female characters that were believable in their own context. Parvana’s mother, Fatana, who braves the Taliban and walks hours on blistered, bloody feet to try to retrieve her husband from jail. Parvana’s sister, Nooria, who desperately wants to continue her own education, but willingly gives what instruction she can in secret to a group of neighbourhood girls. Parvana, herself. The novel is full of women that inspire respect, both for themselves, and for their real life counterparts.
Continue the story with Parvana’s Journey, Mud City, and My Name is Parvana, and be sure to check out the excellent audiobook edition of The Breadwinner, narrated by Rita Wolf.
Check out other reviews from The Prairie Library and from Blogging for Barakat, which supports an organisation committed to providing educational opportunities for women and children in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.
Read an article about how one teacher has used Parvena’s stories in her classroom: Expanding Their Worlds Through Books by Tara Smith