Mud City, the third novel in Ellis’ The Breadwinner series, is the story of Shauzia, the best friend of The Breadwinner’s main character Parvana. In book 1, readers learned that Shauzia, like Parvana, was pretending to be a boy in Taliban-controlled Kabul so that she could work and earn money to support her family at home. Women and girls were denied education and independence and to break the rules was to invite severe punishment, even death. While we don’t learn a lot about Shauzia in book 1, we do know that her family includes her mother and paternal grandparents, who are planning to marry Shauzia away for money. At the end of The Breadwinner, Shauzia flees to Pakistan with a group of nomadic shepherds. Her goal is to move to France, and she carries a photo from a magazine of the lavender fields there. Shauzia and Parvana plan to meet in Paris in 20 years. Yet when we meet up with Shauzia, she is no closer to this dream in Pakistan than she had been in Afghanistan.
Shauzia, age 12, is living in a refugee camp where Mrs. Weera, another character from book 1, is running the section for widows and children. It is crowded, there is not enough food or medicine, and Shauzia is angry with Mrs. Weera for making her work without pay. Shauzia expected to quickly find her way to the ocean and France, and yet she finds herself stuck with no hope of improving her lot. She thinks Mrs. Weera is overbearing, and Mrs. Weera demonstrates little sympathy for Shauzia and her dreams. She wants the girl to learn to become helpful where she is but offers to send Shauzia to Peshawar to work as a servant. Shauzia has other plans and leaves, still dressed as a boy, with her dog Jasper to make it on her own.
Life in Peshawar is fast-paced and dangerous. Jobs are hard to come by, and there are countless homeless adults and children all scrounging to get by. Shauzia tries to hire herself out to local merchants, offering to clean and run errands. Occasionally this works out for her, but often, she and Jasper spend the days being bullied and shunted from place to place. She spends time picking through trash with other children and often simply begs for handouts. Foreigners who live near the university can be generous, and Jasper attracts kindly attention even if Shauzia does not. Shauzia finds herself in trouble with the law and gets some assistance from an American family, but misunderstandings will lead to an unhappy ending to that relationship.
Shauzia ends up back in the refugee camp, and she is more angry than ever. Ellis does a great job conveying the effect that hunger and desperation have on refugees, showing a riot over flour and Shauzia’s growing concern that she will end up like the mentally/emotionally broken refugees that she sees around the camp. Shauzia is just a child, and she has had to endure more violence and tragedy than we can imagine. She is also a strong-willed and independent minded young woman, which is why she and Mrs. Weera knock heads but also why they ultimately respect one another. They are very much alike.
Mud City ends shortly after 9/11, and that event has an impact on life in the refugee camp. It also influences the decision that Shauzia makes at the end of the novel. As with the previous two novels, Ellis presents a detailed illustration of the horror and grief that war visits upon children, and she shows us a strong girl who somehow manages to keep both her body and spirit alive. The plight of refugee children is important to Ellis, and these novels serve as a reminder that we in the west have been complicit in the events that have led to their refugee status. So many children around the world and at our very borders suffer from hunger, homelessness, from loss of family. Very little has changed in the 20 years since Ellis wrote The Breadwinner. This is an excellent and eye-opening YA series and would make a good companion to a non-fiction book I reviewed a few years ago, A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea — the true story of a young woman refugee from Syria.