The Breadwinner is set in Afghanistan during the 1990s and tells the story of a young girl growing up in her war-torn homeland.
Parvana has never known what it is like for her country not to be at war. For over twenty years, bombs have been flying through her city – and she’s only been alive for eleven. For as long as she can remember, her family’s homes have been blown up by bombs. Each time, they were forced to move to a smaller house. Now, they live all together in one room.
The worst of it is that the Taliban has ruled that women and girls must all stay indoors in Afghanistan. Parvana herself occasionally slips out to help her lame father at his work, but her mother and sisters must stay inside always. It just isn’t fair!
When Parvana’s father is arrested, she knows that her family is in deep trouble. They have no one to earn money for them. Unless… unless Parvana herself becomes their breadwinner!
The setting of The Breadwinner is a country where women are suppressed and oppressed. They are treated as invaluable and barely human. Ms. Ellis’s response is to defend women’s rights. Although some of her statements smelt of feminism, I agreed with her on other points. I could agree with her, at least, that laws should not forbid women to pursue careers and degrees, whatever my personal opinions on the subject are.
Because they are all crowded together in one room, Parvana’s family sometimes breaks into small altercations. These most often occur between Parvana and her snooty older sister, Nooria. You really get the idea that they don’t like each other, the way they fling insults at one another. Granted, they do have a lot of pressure on them, and are in constant terror of their lives. I suppose that might have a negative effect on a person’s attitude. They do become more bonded in the course of the story, but still have verbal disagreements.
When Parvana’s father is arrested, it is decided that Parvana will dress up as a boy and go out to earn money. She gains a sense of independence in her role, and when her mother advises her to quit a particular job, flat out refuses to obey her.
“Tomorrow you’ll go back to reading letters. No more of this digging!” Mother declared. “We don’t need money that badly!”
“No,” Parvana said to her mother.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I don’t want to quit yet. Shauzia and I want to buy trays, and things to sell from the trays. I can follow the crowd that way, instead of waiting for the crowd to come on me. I can make more money.”
“We are managing fine on what you earn reading letters.”
“No, Mother, we’re not,” Nooria said.
Mother spun around to scold Nooria for talking back, but Nooria kept talking. “We have nothing left to sell. What Parvana earns keeps us in nan, rice and tea, but there’s nothing extra. We need money for rent, for propane, for fuel for the lamps. If she can make money this way, and she’s willing to do it, then I think she should be allowed.”
It was Parvana’s turn to stunned. Nooria taking her side? Such a thing had never happened before.
“I’m glad your father isn’t here to hear you talk to me with such disrespect!”
“That’s just it,” Mrs. Weera said gently. “Their father isn’t here. These are unusual times. They call for ordinary people to do unusual things, just to get by.” [pgs. 115-116]
I was amazed that Parvana’s mother believe she could give Parvana free reign in the city and yet still control her decisions. Unfortunately, this tendency to buck her mother’s counsel increases on Parvana’s part.
“I’m not sending Nooria off to Mazar all by herself,” Mother said. “And since you are a child, you will come with us.”
“I’m not going,” Parvana insisted. She even stamped her feet.
“You will do as you’re told,” Mother said. “All this running around wild in the streets has made you think you’re above yourself.” [pg. 137]
And now she realizes that! Parvana gets her way and does not go with her mother.
One of the jobs that Shauzia and Parvana do is to sell bones to a bone broker. They go to the cemetery and dig up the bones, joking about the skulls and wondering whether the skeletons mind.
Shauzia tells Parvana that their scheme of dressing as boys won’t work for too much longer because they’re “starting to grow”. She complains that she doesn’t “want things to pop out of me all of a sudden.” [pg. 127]
Because of the political unrest in Kabul, there is much violence in the city. Not all of it is recorded, but some of it is.
When Parvana’s father is arrested, her mother jumps to his defense.
One of the soldiers raised his rifle and whacked her on the head. She collapsed on the floor. The soldier hit her a few more times. Maryam and Ali screamed with every blow to their mother’s back. [pg. 31]
Later, Parvana goes to the sports arena where she believes a game of soccer is to be played. Instead she witnesses a thief’s punishment.
All of a sudden one of the soldiers took out a sword, raised it above his head and brought it down on the man’s arm. Blood flew in every direction. The man cried in pain. [pg. 121]
On one occasion, Parvana hears a man screaming at a woman who is crying. She then hears thuds proceeding from their direction.
Parvana brings a stranger to her home. It turns out that the girl escaped from a very violent situation in Mazar.
“They went from house to house, looking for enemies. They came to my house. They came right inside! They grabbed my father and my brother and took them outside. They shot them right in the street. My mother started hitting them, and they shot her, too. I ran back inside and hid in a closet. I was there for a long, long time. I thought they would kill me, too, but they were finished killing people at my house. They were busy killing at other houses.
“Finally I left the closet and went downstairs. There were bodies all over the street. Some soldiers drove by in a truck. They forbade us to move the bodies of our families, or even cover them up. They said we must stay inside.
“I was so scared they would come back for me! When it got dark, I ran outside. I ran from building to building, looking out for the soldiers. There were bodies everywhere. The wild dogs had started eating some of the bodies, so there were pieces of people on the sidewalks and in the streets. I even saw a dog carrying a person’s arm, in its mouth!” [pgs. 151-152]
Parvana’s father tells her that “religion was about teaching people how to be better human beings”. [pg. 14]
Conclusion. By no means a perfect story, but an interesting one. It made me aware of just how varied different cultures may be and made me grateful for the freedoms that we still do enjoy in America. I would serve as an enlightening read for middle to older students, but is not a ‘must-have’.
Review © 2013 Laura Verret