In this final novel of Deborah Ellis’ The Breadwinner series, we are reunited with Parvana, the young girl who disguised herself as a boy in order to support her family and survive in war torn, Taliban controlled Afghanistan. Several years have passed, Parvana is now a teenager, and Afghanistan is still rocked by war. US troops and bases are nearby, and the Taliban is still terrorizing the people, especially women and girls. Through her YA novels, Ellis shows the perspective of a girl, now a young woman, as she tries not just to survive but to develop her own independence and power in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Parvana’s story is told mostly through flashbacks as she sits isolated in a US army base prison somewhere in Afghanistan. As the male officer and female interpreter try to speak with Parvana, she maintains silence, refusing to acknowledge that she can understand when they use English, Dari and Pashtu to interrogate her. While she lives in a clean cell, with enough food and water, she is subjected to some extreme methods of interrogation, including sleep deprivation and a constant barrage of loud music. The assumption of the interrogator is that Parvana is a terrorist who had something to do with the bombing of a school. Parvana retreats into her own thoughts, using coping techniques that she honed over her time as a traveling refugee searching for her family. She does math in her head and thinks about the past, and this is how we learn both the events leading to Parvana’s detention and the reason for her silence.
At the end of Parvana’s Journey, Parvana and her traveling companions (the children Laila, Hassan and Asif) made it to a refugee camp, and Parvana, miraculously, found her mother and surviving siblings, although a tragedy is the cause for their reunion. My Name is Parvana reveals what has happened in the interim. With the support of charitable agencies, Parvana’s mother and some other women banded together to form a school for girls. Parvana’s older sister Nooria is one of the teachers, while Parvana and younger sister Maryam are students, and Asif acts as a sort of technician/handyman. The school is successful. A number of families, lacking in education themselves, want their daughters to learn to read, write and do math. Yet not everyone supports the school’s goals. In the local village, many men are suspicious of it and think encouraging girls to become independent is immoral and dangerous.
Two types of conflict are at the center of this novel. First, there is the conflict between Parvana and her mother/authority. Like many teens, Parvana is angry that she is treated as a child and not shown respect for what she has experienced and learned in her life. She is jealous of Nooria, and has reason to be angry at Nooria and her mother at one point in the book. Yet, Parvana is also at times immature and reckless, nearly getting stoned by angry men in the village when she forgets to cover her face and talks back to them. Despite the many tragedies and dangerous situations she has faced in her young life, she is in some ways like any other teenager and she is still growing up. The other conflict has to do with the war, the school and the growing resentment of Taliban-supporting men in the village. Parvana’s mother receives threatening letters and Parvana witnesses some suspicious activity around the school compound. As the threats increase, teachers and students stay away, and Parvana must step up as a teacher and leader in the absence of others.
As with the previous Breadwinner novels, the main characters have to face danger, violence and tragedy. Parvana and the school exist in a war zone, and once things get hot, neither side seems to care much about the fate of a school and its children. One of the things Parvana learns though is that, despite all the evil, hardship and loss she has endured, she has not lost her humanity. We learn the truth about why she is in the prison and we see her make several truly selfless decisions, knowing that she will suffer as a result.
This series is excellent and I recommend it to readers young and old. Ellis uses her pen to let the children of Afghanistan tell their stories of deprivation, homelessness and loss of family due to war. At the end of each novel, she provides some history so that readers can place her stories in context. She has also published a work of non-fiction, The Kids of Kabul: Living Bravely Through a Never-ending War, featuring her interviews with children in Afghanistan about their experiences.