The Kite Runner easily divides into three main sections: Amir's childhood in Kabul; Amir and Baba's years in Fremont, California; and, finally, Amir's return to Kabul. The plot covers multiple betrayals and offers the possibility of redemption – though by no means is redemption assured. We'll spend a little more time on the first section since it really sets the rest of the book in motion. It's like the Big Bang – the rest of The Kite Runner's universe takes shape around the early events of the novel.
The early years in Kabul are charmed. Our protagonist, Amir, lives in a fairly posh house with his father, whom he calls Baba, and their servants, Ali and Hassan. (Who, if you're keeping score, are also a father and son duo.) Amir's mother died giving birth to him, and Hassan's mom ran off soon after he was born – so the two young boys both grow up without mothers. As the book likes to point out, they also share the same wet nurse (a woman who nursed them as babies). This apparently makes people very close.
There's some tension, though, in the household. Ali and Hassan are Hazaras, which means they're from an ethnic minority. They don't have the same status as Amir and Baba. Though Amir and Baba rarely toss off ethnic slurs at them, Ali gets some abuse from the neighborhood boys. To make things a bit more uncomfortable, Amir doesn't get nearly enough attention from his father. Baba seems to dislike Amir – he's weak and likes poetry instead of bloodthirsty sports, etc. In fact, it sometimes seems like Baba has more affection for his servant boy, Hassan.
What's our protagonist to do? Well, the only thing he can do: win a kite-fighting tournament and thus earn his father's love. In Afghanistan, people not only fly kites, they fight them. This involves long kite strings coated in tar and glass; the point is to cut the string of the other kites. So Amir and Hassan set off to win the annual winter kite-fighting tournament. After some snazzy strategy and a little luck, Amir actually wins. All he needs now is for Hassan to chase down the defeated kite, and he'll have his father's love. (Question: Is this a reverse case of a parent trying to buy a child's love?)
Hassan takes off after the defeated kite. He snags it, but he also runs into three unsavory characters: Wali, Kamal, and Assef. Amir and Hassan have had run-ins with these no-good punks before and now Assef, the ring-leader, wants revenge. To teach Hassan a lesson, Assef rapes Hassan in an alleyway while Wali and Kamal watch. To make matters worse, Amir has just arrived but he doesn't have the guts to stand up for Hassan. It's horrific on a number of levels: Amir's cowardice, Assef's cruelty, Hassan's victimization, and the general feeling of all parties involved that a Hazara doesn't deserve the respect afforded to the ethnic majority in Afghanistan.
Hassan is shaken up after the incident in the alleyway, but he doesn't talk with Amir about it. Both boys pretend it didn't happen. But the guilt begins to wear on Amir – how can he go on with life if just seeing Hassan reminds him of his cowardice? Also, Baba seems even more affectionate toward Hassan, which adds jealousy to Amir's list of mounting troubles.
Amir's solution to all this is cruel and cowardly. Instead of telling Baba what happened, or confessing to Hassan that he saw the rape, Amir decides to drive Ali and Hassan away. After his birthday party, Amir stuffs a wad of cash and a watch under Hassan's mattress. He tells Baba his stuff is missing. Because he's got a heart of gold and because he knows Baba would never forgive Amir for his treachery, Hassan confesses to stealing the money and watch. Ali and Hassan leave. Baba is heartbroken.
Around the same time of the kite-fighting tournament, war comes to Afghanistan. Things get increasingly worse for Amir and Baba – the Soviets have spies everywhere and it's just not safe in Kabul anymore. So Amir and Baba pack up and sneak across the border to Pakistan. From there, they fly to California.
America changes everything for Amir and Baba. Although Baba works hard in Fremont, he and Amir struggle to make ends meet. They sell used goods at a flea market for extra money. On the bright side, Amir falls in love with a foxy young lady, Soraya, at the flea market.
It's sad to see Baba in America, though. His immense wealth doesn't make it from Afghanistan to the States, and Baba works long hours in a gas station. His health deteriorates. When Amir discovers Baba hacking up blood (never a good sign in a novel), they go to the doctor. Baba has cancer. It's already spread and it's terminal. But before Baba passes away, he arranges Amir's marriage to Soraya. It's a beautiful wedding, and the two are very much in love. After their marriage, Soraya and Amir try to have kids, but without any success. Cut to June of 2001.
One of Baba's old friends – a man who was like a second father to Amir – calls Amir in America. His name is Rahim Khan. He wants Amir to come back to Afghanistan, cryptically telling Amir, "There is a way to be good again" (14.19). Amir drops everything in America and goes to meet Rahim Khan.
Rahim Khan brings Amir up to speed on what's happened since he's left Afghanistan. He, Hassan, and Farzana (Hassan's wife) moved into Baba's house. Hassan had a child named Sohrab. In a cruel turn of events, though, the Taliban brutally executed Hassan and Farzana, leaving Sohrab orphaned. Now, Sohrab is somewhere in Kabul without any family or protection. Rahim Khan wants Amir to go to Kabul and rescue Sohrab. Amir is initially resistant, but Rahim Khan drops some knowledge on Amir: Hassan was Amir's half-brother. This means that Baba slept with Sanaubar, Ali's wife, effectively betraying his servant and friend. Baba never told Hassan or Amir about it. Things just got a lot more complicated.
Saving Sohrab is supposed to atone for both the sins of Baba and Amir. But it's not so easy. Sohrab isn't in the orphanage – a Talib official, who's also a pedophile, and who also happens to be that vile Assef, is keeping Sohrab in his home. Amir, in his first really, really courageous act of the novel, faces off with Assef mano a mano. (We mean this very literally: Assef and Amir fight each other in hand-to-hand combat to determine the fate of Sohrab.) Amir is no match for Assef, who, to be fair, is also using brass knuckles. But lo and behold! Sohrab, like Hassan before him, is a whiz with the slingshot. Sohrab nails Assef right in the eye, blinding him. Amir and Sohrab escape.
Amir wants to take Sohrab with him to America. There's one hitch: it's almost impossible to do adopt Sohrab since no death certificates exist for Hassan and Farzana. Amir has already promised Sohrab he'll take him back to America and, more importantly, he'll never put Sohrab in an orphanage. Well, in order to adopt Sohrab, it seems like Amir has to temporarily put Sohrab in an orphanage and then the paperwork might go through.
Sohrab is distraught and tries to commit suicide. (Is someone pummeling us in the stomach? Oh wait, we're just reading a really sad novel.) Though Sohrab survives, he doesn't fully forgive Amir. Yet the novel ends on a hopeful note. Amir takes Sohrab to the park where some Afghans are flying kites. Sohrab and Amir fly a kite together and even fight another kite – and win. It brings all of Kabul back to Amir and, we think, shows Amir and Sohrab how their love for Hassan has brought them together.