The Breadwinner Summary

Deborah Ellis

The Breadwinner

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The Breadwinner Summary

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The Breadwinner, also known as Parvana, is a 2000 children’s novel by Canadian author and activist Deborah Ellis. It centers on an eleven-year-old girl named Parvana who, due to her family circumstances, is forced to defy the Taliban and their restrictive anti-woman laws to become the breadwinner for her family. Exploring themes of women’s rights, independence, and the struggle between tradition and modernization, The Breadwinner was critically acclaimed upon its release and has had over forty print runs in the United States alone. It was followed by three sequels: Parvana’s Journey; Mud City; and My Name is Parvana. Ellis spent several months interviewing Afghani refugees in Pakistan, and these interviews served as the basis for her depiction of everyday life in Afghanistan. Frequently used as assigned reading for middle school students, The Breadwinner was the winner of the Peter Pan Award and the Middle East Book Award. It has been adapted into a 2017 animated film, executive produced by Angelina Jolie.

As The Breadwinner begins, Parvana is eleven and lives in Kabul, Afghanistan, with her father, her mother Fatana, her older sister Nooria, and her younger siblings Maryam and Ali. Life is good, until one day Taliban Soldiers enter their house and arrest their father for having a foreign education. Parvana and her mother go to the local jail to beg for his release, but the guards beat them as punishment for daring to step out of their place as women. Parvana’s mother becomes deeply depressed, refusing to move from her mattress. This leaves the family in a dire position, as women are not allowed to work or even travel unaccompanied by men in the Taliban’s Afghanistan, and Parvana’s father can no longer work. Mrs. Weera, a former physical education teacher, comes to stay with Parvana’s family to help, and Parvana’s mother begins to emerge from her depression. Fatana and Mrs. Weera begin to publish a clandestine magazine, which they smuggle back and forth from Pakistan. The two women come up with the idea of disguising Parvana as a boy, by cutting her hair and dressing her in her late brother Hossain’s clothes, so she can buy groceries. Parvana takes up her father’s business of reading and writing letters for illiterate people. She also starts a business with a girl named Shauzia, who she used to go to school with. Although they were never close before, necessity makes them allies as they start a portable shop using trays. They make the money for the trays by digging graves.

As Parvana battles to keep her family afloat, she becomes closer to her older sister Nooria, along with a local woman who lives in a building close to where Parvana works. This woman helps the girls out every day by throwing small gifts out of her window onto Parvana’s blanket. Nooria soon announces that she’s leaving Kabul for Mazae-E-Sharif in the north, where she hopes to get married and go to college. Her mother and younger siblings accompany her, but Parvana chooses to stay behind, as she looks like a boy and it would be hard to explain why she was going too. Although Parvana is sad to see her sister go, she understands her decision. Parvana moves in with Mrs. Weera and continues to work in Kabul. After work one day, she meets a girl, named Homa, who ran away from Mazar-e-Sharif and is incredibly upset. When Parvana takes her home, she learns from her that Mazar-e-Sharif has been taken by the Taliban. Homa’s family was murdered by them, and she barely escaped with her life. Although Mrs. Weera is kind to Homa and takes her in, Parvana is terrified about the fate of her family. A blessing comes when Parvana’s father is unexpectedly released from prison, but he’s clearly been beaten and mistreated. Mrs. Weera, Homa, and Parvana slowly nurse him back to health, and when he’s strong enough, Parvana and her father leave for Mazar-e-Sharif, hiding on the back of a truck. They make their way to the refugee camps, along with Shauzia. Shauzia plans to run away so she won’t have to get married, and decides to leave with a nomadic group. As Parvana says goodbye to her now close friend, the pair make a pact to meet each other again, twenty years later at the top of the Eiffel Tower. Mrs. Weera and Homa also make plans to travel, in their case to Pakistan to help women in exile. The book ends with Parvana and her father boarding another truck heading to Pakistan. She takes one last look at the mountains of Afghanistan, and although the future is uncertain, she feels hope.

Deborah Ellis is a Canadian author and activist, who is active in the anti-war movement. Her novels tend to focus on people who are ignored by the media. Examples include tales like The Breadwinner and The Heaven Shop, which focused on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Malawi; as well as local stories like Looking for X, which addressed day-to-day life in a poverty-stricken area of Toronto. A philanthropist who donates most of the profits from her books to charitable organizations, she has been named to the Order of Ontario and the Order of Canada, and has won awards including the Governor General’s Award and the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award.