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Parvana’s Journey

by Deborah Ellis

One of the most interesting things about Deborah Ellis’s new novel, Parvana’s Journey, is its absence of human antagonists. A sequel to her hugely successful The Breadwinner (which has sold more than 200,000 copies worldwide), this new novel follows the same character, Parvana, now 13, on her search for her mother and siblings in war-ravaged Afghanistan. Parvana’s adversary is the landscape, both political and physical: the fearful reign of the Taliban still looms, bombs fall from the sky, minefields block her path; food, water, and shelter are always scarce. In many ways this is a novel of survival, in which the resourceful hero must prevail over the elements. It is also a quest, not unlike The Odyssey – though far less hopeful, for there is no set destination for Parvana, no home. She can only hope that somehow her meandering path will cross with her displaced family’s.

In The Breadwinner, Ellis necessarily had to deliver a considerable amount of information to the reader about Afghanistan, its history and current living conditions. Parvana’s Journey contains scarcely a historical or political reference. The result is a swifter opening, and a story focused more on one character’s physical struggles than on a geopolitical situation.

After burying her father, Parvana goes in search of her remaining family. Her quest is not purely the result of a stalwart heart – she has to flee the village when it’s rumoured she will be turned over to the Taliban for money.
Despite this, most of the people Parvana meets try to be generous: if they have anything to share, they share it; if they have shelter, they offer it. Ellis draws a picture of a society in which adversity and suffering are so commonplace that people draw together rather than fly apart.

Once on her way, Parvana encounters other homeless children, the first of whom is a baby, squalling in a bombed-out shelter beside the corpse of his mother. Unhesitatingly, Parvana takes him with her. Later she meets Asif, a one-legged boy who’s fled his abusive uncle. Asif is insufferably arrogant and rude, but he adores the baby (whom Parvana has named Hassan), and excels at taking care of the infant. This trio then encounters a young girl called Leila, who’s managed to survive with her catatonic grandmother in a secluded valley by pillaging from the wreckage of those people destroyed in the bordering minefield. At first Leila can’t stop talking, and she compulsively buries bits of her food to appease the ground so she can walk safely around the minefield. What starts as the novel’s most grotesque segment segues into its most dynamic and uplifting.

From this hellish setting, Parvana and the other children fashion a small Eden: they bury the rotting animal carcasses, dig a proper latrine, clean and heal the worm-ridden Leila, sanitize the shelter, nurse the grandmother to her feet. They make clothes, take stock of their provisions, cook pigeon stew, and for the first time in the novel, enjoy some sense of normalcy and community.

But it all ends when the bombs begin to fall, destroying their little valley and killing Leila’s grandmother. Again the children are forced to continue their aimless quest. And this idyll, when compared with what awaits them, becomes all the more poignant. When they finally reach a refugee camp, initially it seems salvation is at hand. The dangerously dehydrated baby, Hassan, is taken into a clinic, and the children get shelter. But even here food and water and sanitation are scarce commodities – and we realize that there is no triumphant end to Parvana’s journey.

What I found most arresting about the novel was Ellis’s depiction of children in adversity. Parvana and the other characters endure such hardships and traumas that it seems madness and brutality must be the only result. Ellis, a counsellor in a Toronto group home, has travelled to Afghan refugee camps and interviewed women there – apparently the inspiration for the Parvana stories – and her experiences have obviously informed her portrait of children immersed in suffering. In Parvana’s Journey, their resilience is nothing short of amazing and heartbreaking. They get on with things. They forage. They plan. They cook and clean and care for malnourished babies. They tidy up and make their squalid living conditions better. They are the personification of pragmatism and compassion. But not always – and this, too, I admired about the book. Ellis is not afraid to show her characters’ moments of selfishness and cruelty. Asif is needlessly insulting (as all children can be), and Parvana herself gets tired of caring for the baby, of its crying and stinking diapers.

Given her material, Ellis might easily have fallen into a political screed, but her writing is measured and careful, the height of dispassionate objectivity. Her story moves swiftly and is thoroughly engrossing. This is a book that will open children’s perspectives to the larger world – a glimpse that will almost certainly make readers grateful for what they have. But that’s a window that can just as quickly be shut and forgotten, with a grateful shudder. Ellis, in focusing on the personal struggle of her young character, leaves readers with a lasting impression of another life and culture where – despite desperate hardship – compassion and courage can still prevail.