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.