Parvana’s Journey is the second book in Ellis’ The Breadwinner series and picks up shortly after Parvana and her father have left Kabul, Afghanistan, circa 2000, in search of the rest of their family. Ellis continues to focus on matters of war and violence from the perspective of Afghanistan’s refugee children. Like The Breadwinner, this is a short YA novel, appropriate for children age 10 or so and older. It shows the horrors of war and family separation through the eyes of Parvana and other children she meets on her journey to find her mother, sisters and brother.
The Breadwinner ended with Parvana being reunited with her father, who had been jailed by the Taliban. He had lost a limb in a past bombing, and the brutality of imprisonment had further weakened him. As Parvana’s Journey opens, Parvana — still disguised as a boy due to Taliban restrictions on women and girls — has just had to bury her father and now must make her way on her own to find her mother. Parvana and her father had been traveling for months, going without food, medicine and basic amenities while traveling through refugee camps and evading warring armies. Parvana, only about 12 years old, now must go it on her own. Bombings are common, villages are shattered, and refugees abound. Parvana knows she must avoid the Taliban at all costs since she is getting to an age where she can no longer hide her sex, and for a woman or girl to be out on her own, uncovered, will lead to capture, beating and perhaps death.
On her lonely and dangerous journey, Parvana comes upon a bombed out village where she finds some food and also a baby — the sole survivor of whatever violence happened there. She decides to call him Hassan and brings him along, even though this will make her life more difficult. He must be fed, changed, carried, while Parvana herself hasn’t much to eat and is exhausted, but she cannot imagine leaving him to die. When Parvana finds a small cave near a stream, she also discovers another child, a boy near her age named Alif. Alif is missing a leg and shows signs of beatings, and he is an angry and bossy child. Alif and Parvana have a somewhat testy relationship, but Alif needs Parvana and she sees that Alif is actually a good caretaker for Hassan, and so the unlikely trio journey on together.
Among Parvana’s few possessions are a book that had been her father’s and a journal that she keeps along the way. Before leaving Kabul, Parvana had had a friend, Shauzia, who, like her was pretending to be a boy in order to work and support her family. Shauzia’s dream was to move to Paris, a seemingly idyllic place full of beauty and far from war. The two girls agree that in 20 years, they will meet again in Paris. In her journal, Parvana writes to Shauzia about her life — the trials, the fears, the terror and exhaustion. One day, when things seem to be at their worst, when Alif, Hassan and Parvana are starving, unwell and exhausted, Parvana writes of an imaginary world — a place of beauty and plenty that only children can see. It’s not long after this that Parvana and Alif make a startling discovery — that they are in a mine field and that a little girl named Leila has seen them and can save them.
The four children become a kind of family and manage to put together a decent sort of life in Leila’s mud hut, but eventually the war catches up to them, forcing them to flee. The children find their way to a refugee camp, where the novel ends with a combination of sadness and hope.
Ellis’ overall message is about the horror of war and its impact on children. Parvana’s Journey is graphic in its description of this, but it is appropriate for kids. I think it could lead to worthwhile discussions about war, about the plight of refugees around the world, and about Afghanistan — a place that has been the site of fighting for thousands of years but about which many of us know very little. This series continues to impress me.