Deborah Ellis’s 2012 young adult novel, My Name is Parvana
, revisits the characters of her Breadwinner
trilogy. In 2000, The Breadwinner
introduced Parvana, an eleven-year-old girl living in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan who dresses as a boy to secure food for her family. Her story continues in Parvana’s Journey
, and Mud City
concludes the trilogy. Parvana is fifteen in this sequel to the trilogy and has reunited with her family. Together, they realize their dream of opening a school for girls, a dangerous undertaking in Afghanistan, where even American forces work against them.
Parvana is in custody at an American military base on suspicion of terrorist activities in league with the Taliban, who no longer control the country but continue to wage violence there. Having found Parvana alone in the ruins of her bombed-out school, the Americans are trying to determine what she was doing there. But Parvana refuses to say a word, even her name, in response to their questions. Searching the contents of her shoulder bag, they discover a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird
and some papers written in Dari, but she remains silent when addressed in that language, too.
The Americans put Parvana in a cell. During the night, they drag her from bed to ask about the names found in her papers, but she won’t answer. In the coming days, their interrogation methods, led by the Major, become harsher. They force her to remain standing for long periods of time, deprive her of sleep, deny her food, and blast Donny Osmond music into her cell. When those tactics fail, the Major derisively comments, “She isn’t smart enough to be afraid.” Ironically
, Parvana is reviewing multiplication tables in her mind as he speaks, a trick she learned from her father to withdraw from stressful situations.
Parvana also occupies her mind with the past, particularly the year preceding her present as an American detainee. Her memories of the school her mother built make up chapter four, and subsequent chapters alternate between Parvana’s past and present. The name of the school is “Leila’s Academy of Hope,” after Parvana’s little sister who died. Parvana’s mother, a widow and a former journalist, is determined to improve the lot of girls in her community, despite much cultural resistance to any form of female empowerment. During the school’s opening ceremony, a man shouts his opposition to education for girls, signaling the challenges ahead for the enterprise. Parvana’s adopted brother, Asif, escorts the man out.
Noori, Parvana’s older sister, teaches at the girls’ school, while Parvana is a student along with her younger sister, Maryam. As the weeks pass, Parvana grows restless and resentful. Her mother shows her little kindness or affection, appearing to favor Noori. Parvana considers cutting her hair and venturing off on her own disguised as a boy (as she did years ago), but Asif convinces her she’s needed at the school.
Noori receives news that she’s won a scholarship to attend an American university, provoking Parvana’s jealousy again. But envy turns to outrage when Parvana learns that, in her application for the scholarship, Noori submitted Parvana’s story of masquerading as a boy as if it were her own. In a fit of pique, Parvana goes out the door just as a rock flies from the window of a passing car. It bears a note threatening death if the school remains open.
Noori leaves for America, and Parvana takes her place as a teacher at Leila’s Academy. The school celebrates its one-year anniversary, yet hostility towards it hasn’t subsided. When Parvana and her mother visit the market and angry men harass them, Parvana thinks of it as a “forest of hatred.” Enrollment dwindles, but classes continue, and the school becomes a refuge for several girls in desperate circumstances. The school gatekeeper, Fahir, suddenly quits, and Parvana finds a cache of grenades in the storage room. She suspects the Taliban was forcing Fahir to store the explosives.
Parvana’s mother attends a meeting on girls’ education but fails to return. The next day, a truck dumps her dead body at the school pinned with a note declaring her “evil.” After burying their mother, Parvana and Asif decide they must abandon the school for the safety of themselves and their remaining students. American airstrikes are moving closer, so Parvana paints the word “school” on their roof to deter a bombing.
Parvana contacts Mrs.Weera, a family friend and a member of parliament, to ask for help. She sends Parvana’s old friend Shauzia to their rescue, which surprises Parvana as she thought her friend was in Paris. Shauzia leads them to a nearby shelter just as an airplane bombs the school. Parvana realizes she’s left behind her father’s shoulder bag containing his cherished book, To Kill a Mockingbird
. As she turns back to retrieve it, Shauzia warns Parvana to stay silent if she’s caught at the school bombing site.
Having indeed been caught, Parvana is still silent, despite the Americans’ punishing treatment of her. They have uncovered the grenades and the buried body at the school and want answers. Then the military base is attacked. In the chaos, Parvana has a chance to escape but stops to help a wounded American, forfeiting her freedom. After the dust settles, the Major tells Parvana she will be transferred to a harsher prison and asks why she blew up her own school. Finally, Parvana speaks, asserting the Americans bombed the school. Mrs. Weera arrives just before Parvana is transferred. In the name of the Afghan parliament, she demands they release Parvana to her. As Parvana gets into Mrs. Weera’s car, she is once again thrilled to see her friend Shauzia, who is seated inside.
In 2012, the same year My Name is Parvana
was published, a fifteen-year-old Pakistani girl who stood up against the Taliban’s prohibition on female education, Malala Yousafzai, survived a shot in the head. Deborah Ellison is a longtime activist for women’s rights and has traveled through Afghanistan interviewing women. Their real-life stories inspired her Breadwinner