A good novel is like a new window on the world.
And a fresh perspective is exactly what you need every once in awhile. Especially if you’re growing up in a relatively isolated community like the Yukon, with your head down as you rush madly from home to school to soccer practice and piano.
The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis is eye-opening in exactly this way. It follows the story of a young Kabul girl named Parvana. A Whitehorse girl can easily identify with Parvana as she copes with her bossy older sister and her parents’ endless nagging.
But any semblance to what we consider a “normal” life quickly disappears as the Taliban intrude on Parvana’s life. Her school is closed. Her mother and sister cannot go outside without a male relative as an escort. The kitchen windows are painted over to prevent women being visible from outside the home. Then the Taliban arrest her father for the crime of having attended a foreign university.
Unable to work, and with no men to support them, Parvana’s family is doomed to starvation. Their only hope is for Parvana to crop her hair, dress in her dead brother’s clothes and pretend to be a boy so she can work in the market.
As literature, The Breadwinner is an engaging read. Parvana’s energetic and feisty character appeals to the reader and her adventures are gripping, sometimes uncomfortably so.
We also see Parvana develop as her troubles force her to think about her mother and father, and their choices, in new ways. And Ellis manages to teach us quite a bit about Afghanistan without turning her novel into a lecture.
Even more importantly, The Breadwinner provokes conversation. Three of us have read it in our house, and we’ve discussed it with a few Grade 7 friends studying the book at school.
The Breadwinner doesn’t force its point of view on the reader. Ellis describes Parvana’s life in Kabul and lets us make up our own minds.
But she does lead us to some important concepts.
The first is how fortunate we are to live in Canada rather than Afghanistan.
“It reminds me how lucky we are,” said one Whitehorse girl. This isn’t a new idea, but it is probably one that young Canadians (indeed all Canadians) should remember more often.
Another theme is “why?” Why have the Taliban taken over Afghanistan? Why do they disagree so violently with our view on human rights, especially women’s rights?
In one memorable scene, Parvana reads a letter to an illiterate young Taliban fighter. Seeing him cry over his dead wife doesn’t help us understand the men who dragged her father to prison, but it does make us ask ourselves about what motivates people to do things that seem so obviously wrong to an outsider.
The book also makes us ask questions about the Canadian mission in Afghanistan.
American-backed fighters ejected the Taliban from Kabul in 2001, but the fighting goes on. Canadian aid workers have now been in Afghanistan for seven years and our army—including some Yukoners—is battling the Taliban insurgency in the hills of Kandahar province. Parvana’s story puts a human face behind the news stories we see as our army prepares to withdraw from Kandahar in 2011.
Finally, the book prompts young people to think about what they can do in the real world for people like Parvana, to tackle poverty, homelessness and violence either here at home or in places like Afghanistan.
The Breadwinner’s author is closely linked with Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, a Calgary-based group that has done dozens of projects in Afghanistan in the last decade. One of this columnist’s friends in Kabul reports that the group has a strong reputation for its projects rebuilding girls’ schools and supporting literacy.
Surprisingly small amounts of money can make a big difference.
For the price of a new iPod, you can buy the school supplies for an entire class of Kabul girls. And your teenager’s cellphone bill will pay the monthly salary of the teacher.
None of these questions are easy to answer. But discussing them around the dinner table enriches children and parents alike.
So pick up a copy of The Breadwinner for your teenager, and then steal it back to read yourself.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. His next book Game On Yukon! appears in May.