Review: Parvana’s Journey

Parvana’s Journey by Deborah Ellis

The young adult and children’s literature class at my school is always in demand; my class is pushing into the upper twenties, which is huge for my small college. This semester, there’s a focus on social justice in the works selected for this class, which include Speak and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. The first book in the pipeline is Parvana’s Journey, the middle installment in an apparently popular children’s trilogy that begins with The Breadwinner, which concerns children in war torn Afghanistan (which, sadly, is Afghanistan at any point past 1979).

Parvana’s Journey opens with the eponymous character burying her father. Separated from the rest of her family and masquerading as a boy, Parvana has little choice but to carry on in their original mission—finding her mother, currently located in one of the many refugee camps in Afghanistan. Along the way, Parvana finds other children scarred by war. They make their own family for a while, but few things are stable in a country torn apart by war.

Deborah Ellis is a psychologist by profession; her research for The Breadwinner and Parvana’s Journey consisted of interviews she conducted with female Afghan refugees in 1997. And it definitely shows. I applaud Ellis for writing about these issues in a way that’s accessible to children without dumbing it down, but I think this novel would have succeeded more as a piece of children’s nonfiction rather than a book. As a teaching tool, it’s successful—Ellis touches on a variety of children affected by war, from the abandoned baby Hassan to crippled Asif to mentally unstable Leila. But as a novel, it doesn’t. There’s something mechanical about Parvana’s Journey; it’s a vehicle for these issues, rather than the story—or what little there is. While Parvana’s motivation is to find her mother, she wanders around from place to place in order to stumble across the three other children whose stories Ellis also wants to write about. In fact, when she finally reaches the end of her quest (in a very roundabout way), it happens because of pure luck, not because of anything Parvana has done herself. While Parvana is a sympathetic character, being a girl forced to grow up before her time, she (and the rest of the cast) often feel like automatons just going through the motions. There’s just something inorganic to the whole proceedings.

Parvana’s Journey is unrelentingly dark, book-ended as it is with the deaths of two people close to Parvana. Ellis doesn’t shy away from discussing the diarrhea they all contract or the maggot-infested wounds Leila has, which Asif mercifully takes care of. I’m of two minds about this. Since Ellis is writing this series in order to educate children about life in a war torn country, of course it’s going to be dark; you have to deal with reality. Ellis manages to find just the right amount of gore; one of the most horrifying moments doesn’t even end in any bloodshed. While Parvana and Asif are playing in a cave, she makes up a story about a hidden treasure. (The book is never quite clear about otherwise practical Parvana’s dreaminess, but I digress.) The two discover a box, but it’s filled with bullets—a stark and sobering reminder of how war can even infiltrate your private imagination. Yet there’s something I find almost too dark in Ellis’s simplifications of morals for side characters. Parvana, naturally, has to face tough choices, such as the necessity of stealing to survive and initially abandoning another girl in order to save them both. But an adult character who refuses to help the children beyond limited means is demonized (and stolen from, because he ought to be nicer to children); I certainly didn’t expect him to be hailed as a hero, but adults face just as many (if not more, often being responsible for others) problems in a war torn country as children do. Perhaps this is because I’m an adult reader reading a children’s book, but I feel that you can’t get away with making one character morally complex while others are morally rendered in black and white.

Like many children’s novels, Parvana’s Journey is a swift and easy read—I knocked it out in an afternoon, and I’m sure someone in the intended audience will fly through it as well. The prose is utilitarian at best and simplistic at worst, with occasional odd diction. I didn’t like the device of Parvana writing to her friend Shauzia; it felt clunky, repetitive, and, like much of the book, unnatural. But I can see how readers of the trilogy will enjoy the callback to Shauzia, last seen in The Breadwinner. In this class, we’re asked to craft a response to a handful of the books we read; I decided to pass on Parvana’s Journey, as, despite its good intentions and usefulness as a teaching tool, it’s already slipping off my mind.

Bottom line: While Parvana’s Journey is wildly successful as a way to teach children about life for refugees in Afghanistan, it doesn’t succeed as a novel—the thin story is only a vehicle for Ellis to introduce and explore how different children cope with war. The characters feel like automatons; in fact, the whole novel feels mechanical. Useful for a child curious about life in Afghanistan, but not for anyone else.

I bought this used book on Amazon.

15 thoughts on “Review: Parvana’s Journey

  1. Pingback: Review: The Shepherd’s Granddaughter « The Literary Omnivore

  2. I personally think that it is an amazing book and not mechanical at all. This book is great for anyone that’s interested in the war in Afghanistan.

  3. Claire,

    I agree with many of the things you address. I feel, however, that not only does Ellis “explore how different children cope with war,” but she potentially exploits these children who do not have a voice of their own and only have this white woman to speak for them. To explain further, many children of Afghanistan would not even be able to read this book because their native tongue is not English. Likewise, because of the language difference certain nuances will be lost within translation and there is an unequal power dynamic between an adult English speaker translating the story of a non-English speaking child that is not easily reconciled. Of course the power dynamics between children and adults is one of the major issues of children’s literature.

    Here I wonder if, like you mentioned, Ellis had compiled the stories of the children themselves (in their own words, as much as possible) into a nonfiction book, it would have been less problematic? The stories would have still been translated, but at least the children themselves would have spoken for themselves and not just a white therapist who gathered a bunch of different accounts and told a fictional story as she saw fit—using only what she felt was relevant.

    Either way, good analysis.

    Best,
    Chesya

  4. This review is fantastically written and sounded even better read in Dr. Coia’s voice. I would disagree that all the characters are autonomic. Leila is intriguing in that she seems to be insane and I even began to believe that she can “speak to the ground”. But she is bland in that her only trait is insane optimism. Asif is the most complex character, as he acts defensive in his words but acts compassionate (especially towards Hassan, which I did not expect since he was a boy and males are not shown taking care of others in many societies).
    But I completely agree that this journey felt ultimately pointless. For many refugees like Parvana, meandering across their country looking for family, food, or a place to rest their heads in peace is often the goal. Their destination might be something as vague as a direction, to walk until they reach a land without war. But as a Young Adult Novel, Parvana’s Journey has little excuse to come up short. For it to be called a journey, and not a stroll through the desert, characters must be changed by the experience. Parvana remains virtually the same character-wise from beginning to end. Even when plotting to steal some eggs to eat, she decides not to cheat an adult, staying the obedient child she always was. That is, until the adult scams them. “People who cheat children deserve to have bad things happen to them,” (89) she says in defense of stealing. Since the bad man deserved it, Parvana does not defame her character.
    As a refugee, Parvana does not need to be changed by this experience because bad things happen to refugees without reason, as the way life goes. As a book character, Parvana’s lack of development in identity makes her journey empty. Her journey is a great learning tool to educate the reader about refugees, but the reader can be left feeling that the journey was pointless for the characters. The least she could do was learn to read the stars for directions.

    • Exactly. A journey implies development. There’s a fine line to walk between reflecting the situation and, when writing a novel, taking the raw material of life and whipping it into the shape of a narrative. Parvana is the same at the beginning and at the end.

  5. Having read your review of this novel before I read the novel, I was anticipating it being a lot worse than I felt it was. I certainly agree that Parvana’s progress seemed mechanical and pointless; Asif and Leila pointed out to her how fruitless it would be. I felt that Parvana, Asif, and even Hassan got personalities, but Leila’s entire personality seemed to consist of “she’s crazy,” and the adults were all one-dimensional people with a firm location at one of the ends of the morality spectrum. I can understand this from the perspective of “children don’t think of adults as people they can relate to,” but since the point of the book seems to be getting American and Canadian children to sympathize with people different from them, I saw this as a bit of a cop-out.

    One point of yours which I initially agreed with but have since reconsidered when given new information is your complaint that Parvana got her ending through sheer luck. I think the idea of earning the happy ending can only be expected if the main character has the privilege to do so in the first place. Many refugee children only get out because of luck. There would have been hundreds and thousands of children working just as hard as Parvana, and some of them died for the same reason she didn’t – luck. The idea of earning our ending is a very American-dream-y idea.

    I was also not a big fan of the letter-writing, but I suspect I might be more open to it had I read the first book in the trilogy. I know that The Breadwinner is about Parvana and Shauzia, so I would probably be more invested in these asides if I knew more about Shauzia and the two girls’ relationship. The third book is about Shauzia, so maybe the letters serve as an effective bridge between the first and third novels, but within the context of the class reading, I can’t know that.

    • That’s quite a fair point about the trilogy—perhaps context would improve it.

      Looking back, it’s quite accurate that Parvana gets her ending through luck—you’re quite right. But what disappointed me the most was that she didn’t earn it in the sense that she didn’t develop as a character. There’s a fine line between reflecting reality and being a story. If the purpose is to depict life as is, why not write nonfiction?

  6. It is understood that Ellis, as a white psychologist, would not be able to capture the entire Afghani struggle and casually lay it on the pages of her novel; however, I commend her for dedicating energy to an issue sadly, but often, overlooked by us fortunate Americans who are able to sit comfortably with our Kindles and iPads. Ellis made it apparent that she was not trying to appeal to adult readers who are too consumed by the hunt for the next simile and metaphor. She effectively directed her novel to the impressionable audience of children that needed to be informed of an important global issue. Considering the target audience, I do not believe that this novel should be a Nonfiction piece; because the Nonfiction label alone could possibly intimidate and deter a young reader. I am prompted to question your idea of a “successful novel,” because according to its reception and ability to ultimately inform children on a gruesome reality of the world in which we inhabit, in my honest opinion, it smells quite successful.
    I see nothing wrong with Parvana wandering from location to the next, only to stumble upon other unfortunate children…because it is realistic. Would it have been more exciting for Parvana to stumble upon a genie in the middle of the desert and wish away the war? What is the point of glittering a story so a child can be excited and interested? This time the children readers should swallow this medicine with no cherry flavoring. Bitterness is effective. Though this is a fiction novel for children, foolishness would be a distraction. What children need to take away from this novel is already within its pages—and that is the message that children are suffering at the hands of adult decisions.
    I believe that any suffering child from Afghanistan would not deem this novel as one that deserves a mind slip.

    • My idea of a successful novel is one wherein characters undergo character development. I don’t think it would be realistic for Parvana to stumble across a genie—this is a novel about the realities of this particular region. I do, however, think it would be much more realistic for Parvana to learn and grow through her journey of endless wandering, instead of remaining the same character from beginning to finish. It’s not gilding the story, it’s making the story, well, a story. Humans use stories to make sense of their world—we take the raw material of life, which doesn’t make sense, and turn into a story, which does. Again, if Ellis’ point is to document the horrors of this life, nonfiction is a route that allows her to do this without disappointing the narrative conventions children are more attached than adults.

      I disagree that children aren’t attracted to nonfiction—I actively sought out nonfiction about the Civil War as a child. If it’s presented well, children will read it and, more importantly, the adults that control their book purchases and academic reading will give it to them to read. If it’s interesting, they’ll read it.

      You might be interested in Laura Miller’s most recent piece for Salon.com.

  7. Hey Clare…Here is the response to your review.

    Parvana’s Journey by Deborah Ellis was reviewed by Clare McBride on her website/Blog “The Literary Omnivore.” The review was not favorable. (Which we believe does a huge disservice to the book and to the Authors intentions in impacting children on a broader scale) My group would like to address some of the concerns and issues Clare found with the book, and perhaps even sway her to realize that maybe the approach to the book was gone about the wrong way.

    Lets not take time to summarize; we’ve all read the book. So, jumping right in, Clare mentions in the review that Ellis depicts colorless characters, or utilizes “mechanical” elements to tell these children’s story. Clare also mentions the book being a “vehicle” for certain issues in which to enlighten and create awareness for more privileged children. This is obviously the case, however the way the author approaches the issues the small group of parentless children face, is succinct and to the point- we don’t believe this is necessarily a bad thing.
    Sometimes there cannot, and should not be fancy words to express unbelievable hardships children (especially) face in war ravaged countries. The author obviously has dedicated her life’s work to anti- war movements, and her writing reflects that. Young Adults in the United States especially are becoming extremely apathetic and inactive in politics and have a certain entitlement and selfishness to them. (For whatever reasons) When a young adult reads about the maggots in Leila’s forehead from a festering wound, or the bones sticking out of Asif’s crippled body, or the permeating stench that surrounds the children constantly, and especially of the little baby Hasaan who regularly goes several days without eating, nearly starving to death-They won’t quickly forget it. In fact, the book does indeed drag on and on, the children are always hungry. (Although they get a slight reprieve with Leila)
    Clare mentions the book being “unrelentingly dark” and we believe that it should be. We agree with Clare’s suggestion that children should not be shielded from the very real realities of war. (For the simple fact that one day, they will be deciding what wars will come) We also believe that these children SHOULD be hit over the head with the very depressing and hopelessness of these children’s situations. There is no exaggeration-Often times in war, the journey is much shorter for these children. They die. There ARE no breaks for these children. They starve and are blown up every single day. Their lives are mechanical, they are dreamlike, they are hopeless. There is no room for self-improvement or emotional growth-They are too busy surviving. How pretentious is it for us to demand self improvement or personal growth or plot development when the author is trying to convey a larger meaning. The plot is the journey…the journey to stay alive…The constant immediate need is to find food and ultimately for Parvana to find her family.
    The argument that Parvana found her family by “pure luck” that Clare makes may be shortsighted. Pure luck kept her and her friends alive? Pure luck was the driving motivating factor that kept these children walking day after day with nothing to eat or drink? Pure luck? We believe that pure luck had absolutely nothing to do with it, and that Parvana did in fact, “earn” her happy ending. (As bittersweet as it was)
    We feel as though it is important to stop analyzing these young adult novels with a literally critical eye. It is important to not let academia put filters on our childlike vision of what is effective and what is boring. Children, yes are much more sophisticated than adults perceive them to be, however we cannot ignore the incredible amount of success this series has had in attracting young readers and inspiring them to make a change in a world where babies die of malnutrition and friends are blown up in an instant.
    Lastly, the most important goals of this book were to motivate, to anger and to invoke some type of strong emotion in the reader. Children will remember when Leila ran out into the mine field to get food because she thought she was special, and the earth loved her too much to kill her, yet she was killed anyway. (By adults) This little girl escaped inside of herself to create a fantasy world which rationalized the horrors that she witnessed every day. We don’t believe that she was simply “mentally unstable.” She is much more evolved than that. What other eight year old would be able to drag mutilated carcasses out of a mine field and hack them up for food to feed herself and her physically non present grandmother? (And Clare says the characters were not evolved?) Images such as these will certainly stick with whoever reads the book. Take away all of the superfluous literary elements we are all so worried about and think about emotion. Let’s just allow ourselves to think with emotions for once.

    • Pure luck was not their motivation; luck cannot be a motivation. But luck was their circumstances. If Parvana had gone in a wrong direction, she’d be dead, rather than meeting the other characters. If she hadn’t ended up at that camp, she would have never found her mother. I don’t think it’s pretentious to ask for character development in a novel, especially from the protagonist. If she doesn’t develop, why bother writing a fictional piece anyway? Again, Ellis could have gone the nonfiction route and circumvented all the conventions that readers expect from a novel and characters within.

      I vehemently disagree with the idea that we shouldn’t analyze this children’s novel (this is not, by any stretch, a young adult novel; it flirts with middle grade) to the same standards as any other book. If we lower the standards of what our children read, we have only ourselves to blame when they don’t develop that critical eye. And the idea that “superfluous literary elements” and “emotion” are mutually exclusive frustrates me deeply.

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