The scene is bleak in Kabul, and the narrator never tries to suggest otherwise. How could they when their story is set in a city gutted by bombs and ruled over by an oppressive—and violent—regime? It would be pretty disrespectful to the experiences of all the people who actually had to live through this time (since this book is historical fiction). Check out this description of Kabul that Father offers up:
"Kabul has more land mines than flowers," her father used to say. "Land mines are as common as rocks and can blow you up without warning. Remember your brother." (10.40)
There's no room for confusion in passages like this: our story takes place in a dark and dangerous time and place. But the narrator isn't interested in being depressing for depression's sake, so when beauty presents itself, they make sure to include it too. For some examples of this, be sure to check out the moments when Shauzia gives Parvana dried apricots or the Window Woman drops gifts down to her.
We know this book is in the young adult literature genre because it features a young adult and is written for young adult readers—and that's about as YA as a book comes. The language and plot are accessible to young people on pretty much every level. And since this story is based on all kinds of facts—the descriptions of Kabul, both in appearance and law, are factual, and Ellis interviewed Afghan refugees to learn about their experiences living under Taliban rule—it's definitely historical fiction, too.
Lastly, though the biggest drama in this book is caused by the Taliban's terror-filled reign, there's still plenty of drama within Parvana's family for this book to fall under the family drama genre too. Whether she's bickering with Nooria, refusing to join Mother on her journey to Pakistan, or demanding the return of her father, the trials and tribulations of Parvana's family are a big part of the plot in this book.
Do you know what the term breadwinner refers to? It refers to the person who supports a group, usually a family. So if your dad stays home and takes care of the kids, and your mom earns the money your family needs to get by, then your mom is the breadwinner. The title then—The Breadwinner—plays a bit of a trick on readers, because a breadwinner is usually an adult… but in our story, it quickly becomes Parvana, who is just an eleven-year-old girl, once Father is put in prison.
And what's the very first thing Parvana brings home as the new breadwinner for her family? Yup—bread (nan to be precise).
It's Pakistan or bust for pretty much everyone as our story ends. Shauzia is traveling there with some nomads and Mrs. Weera is finding her own ride, while Father and Parvana have hitched themselves a ride in the back of a truck to go search of Mother, Nooria, and the little kids.
But even though they all say their good-byes, the ending doesn't seem all that sad. Our story ends just as it begins—with Parvana—and as it winds to a close, she looks ahead to the future, which "stretched unknown down the road in front of her" (15.79). But while the future brings a lot of uncertainty, Parvana doesn't seem worried—whatever it holds, "she felt ready for it," and even finds herself "looking forward to it" (15.79). This positive attitude, coupled with a final look at Mount Parvana with sunlight shining on its peak, gives Parvana—and readers—a sense of hope.
Kabul is the capital of Afghanistan, and when our book opens, the city has been under Taliban control for about a year and a half. The once-beautiful city where Nooria used to browse in "fine shops for clothes and books" (1.45) is now rubble and ashes—bombs have turned neighborhood "homes and businesses into bricks and dust" (1.44). There was a time when "fertile valleys" (12.54) brought fresh fruit and traders into Kabul, but not anymore—war has taken away the country's beauty, and as Father says, "Kabul has more land mines than flowers" (10.42). Yikes.
The Taliban didn't just bring destruction to Kabul, though—they brought oppression as well—and the very first thing they did when they arrived on the scene was strip women of their rights. Women can no longer attend school, work, or wear anything but a burqa, and they are forbidden from leaving their homes without a man. With the Taliban controlling every facet of people's lives, Kabul is a pretty dismal place, and the people that live here have very few opportunities; most of the country is illiterate.
It's a grim setting for a story, but also completely based on truth. The laws and landscape are accurate to the time—the late 1990s—which is important to keep in mind as we read. While the characters and plot are made up, there's a whole lot of truth tucked into these pages.
The Breadwinner is written for tweens, so the reading level is quite easy. The language shouldn't send readers running for their dictionary, and the plot moves along in a logical sequence. The trickiest thing going in this book are the symbols, but with just a bit of thinking, they're pretty simple to sort out—and if you ever get stuck, just hop on over to the "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" section for a little boost from Shmoop in this department. We've got your back.
This book is all about plot advancement. We don't spend a whole lot of time on flowery descriptions of things or hanging out with characters as they wax philosophical—instead we follow the action. This makes it a compelling read—we're always eager to find out what happens next—and also pretty easy to follow.
Ah, the sweet taste of friendship. From the first day Shauzia meets up with Parvana in the marketplace, she gives her dried apricots to nibble on—and the gift is much appreciated. When Parvana takes a bite of the fruit, it is like:
[…] a wonderful sweetness flooded through her mouth. (9.8)
Given that Parvana mainly subsists on nan and tea, we believe that eating something so seemingly ordinary as a dried apricot tastes like magic. And the thing about this, of course, is that this wonderful sweetness she tastes when she bites into a piece of dried apricot mirrors the sweetness of friendship that Shauzia brings to Parvana's life.
Parvana is so happy to be reunited with a kid her own age. Since she's been forced to pretty much leave her childhood behind by the Taliban, connecting with Shauzia brings a little bit of that lost childhood back to her days. Finally she has someone to talk to that understands what she's going through, who can relate to how hard life is as an eleven-year-old charged with supporting the family, but who also wants to chat about old school friends and giggle.
And while the sweet flavor of the apricots represents the sweetness of friendship, the giving of the apricots symbolizes how much Shauzia appreciates Parvana's friendship too. Since these girls are so strapped for basic necessities—like food—sharing her treat with Parvana is an indication that her presence in Shauzia's life means a lot to the girl. Giving the apricots is like a silent way of saying thank you.
If you at all doubt whether the apricots symbolize Shauzia and Parvana's friendship, though, then consider this: when the girls separate, Shauzia gives Parvana a bag of dried apricots as a goodbye gift. Each time Parvana bites into one, she will literally taste the sweetness of Shauzia's friendship, and in this way, their friendship will linger in Parvana's days as she goes forward… at least until she finishes eating the apricots, anyway.
Everyone has a favorite outfit, and the going look for Afghan men and women is the shalwar kameez. The shalwar is flouncy pajama-like pants and the kameez is a long tunic, and these outfits tell us a lot about their owners and the different roles they play in this book. But let's look at a few characters and their shalwar kameezes to better understand what we're talking about.
Mother decides to send Parvana's shalwar kameez with her to market, in order to Parvana to sell it. Parvana's not having it—she yells, "We can't sell that!" (2.29)—but Mother wonders why they shouldn't. She tells Parvana, "there's no longer any use for it" (2.30), and when she does we understand that Parvana isn't just dressing up as Kaseem for a couple of days—nope, she'll be going undercover as a boy to help support her family for as long as necessary. And because of this, her old clothes—her shalwar kameez—is no longer necessary.
Nooria, on the other hand, needs to dress for success. As the oldest daughter, she is ripe for the picking and will need to look nice when prospective husbands coming knocking, so her clothes stay safely at home and are decidedly not for sale. Since the family sells anything that isn't absolutely necessary, we can see that Nooria's marriage is a top priority for the entire family.
Meanwhile, Hossain's shalwar kameez serves as a painful remember of his loss. It's pale green, like tree buds in springtime, and thereby symbolizes both the energy of his youth and that he was killed before his time. Hossain's shalwar kameez stays in the closet—which we can see as symbolizing his death (it's like it's buried in there)—until the time comes for Parvana to put it on and become Kaseem.
When Parvana dons Hossain's shalwar kameez, it's too big—but she enjoys the shirt pocket because "her girl clothes didn't have any" (6.46). This difference between her girl clothes and the boy clothes she now wears is exemplified through the pocket. And since pockets are nothing if not useful, the presence of a pocket reminds us that Parvana is stepping into a very useful role on behalf of her family. Just like pockets carry stuff you put in them, Parvana is carrying her family's well-being.
Father's shalwar kameez, though, is probably the most symbolic. After his nap, he combs his beard and dresses in his "good white" outfit, and Parvana notices that he looks "very handsome" (2.48). Then the family gathers round him and he tells stories from history, and gives them words of wisdom. In his fancy outfit, he seems like a god or something—and when he wears it, he leads his family in a sort of god-like fashion, educating them though the Taliban forbids it and investing in their futures though they live in a sea of poverty and violence.
Father's shalwar kameez doesn't stay white for very long though, and during his kidnapping, he is hit in the face, and blood from his nose stains the garment. Father is hurt and his shalwar is stained—and this is the last we see of him as he is dragged off to prison. When Father eventually returns, he's still wearing the shalwar kameez, although it is "gray and tattered" (15.1)—just like he is. But though the garment has seen much better days, it's still standing—again, just like Father.
This is just a little symbol in the book, but we think it's a particularly cool one, so we wanted to be sure to include it. When it's time for Parvana to leave Afghanistan, she wants to say goodbye to the Window Woman (who's a symbol in her own right, so be sure to read her analysis). But since they've never spoken—and the woman has to stay hidden indoors—the way Parvana does so is by planting flowers in the place she usually sets up her blanket, right below the Woman's window.
Pro tip: Anytime someone plants something in a book, you probably want to pay attention to whether or not it happens around the same time as an important change. For our purposes with Parvana, this is definitely true—she's preparing to leave Afghanistan, the country she's been born and raised in, to journey to Pakistan with her Father in hopes of finding the rest of their family. And that, Shmoopsters, is about as big of a change as someone can experience.
The thing is, though, that this isn't the only change the flowers Parvana plants represent. Remember how scared and lonely she felt when she first started going to the marketplace? Her father had just been kidnapped from her family's home, her mother and siblings were depending on her to make money to support them, and she was disguised as a boy in hopes of not getting caught by the Taliban. And though it's not like Parvana never feels fear anymore by the time she plants the flowers, she has done some serious growing up during her time in the market—and the flowers represent this change, too.
When Parvana plants the flowers, the townspeople make fun of her, saying the flowers have "no nutrients" (15.52) and "will be trampled" (15.53)—but this doesn't stop her. They might have said the very same things about Parvana, after all, but she managed to grow and survive on the mean streets of Kabul—and perhaps her flowers will too after she's gone.
A stranger comes by and says that "Afghans love beautiful things" but they forget about the beauty in the midst of "so much ugliness" (15.55). The Window Woman and her gift of friendship have been a bit of beauty in the midst of a challenging and often ugly chapter in Parvana's life, so they are the perfect gesture of gratitude for her to leave behind for her mysterious friend.
While the Window Woman is technically a person, since no one ever sees her or is even sure that she actually exists, we're going to treat her as a symbol. And while nobody likes to be treated like a tool (and a symbol is most definitely a literary tool), we think she'd be pleased with what we think she represents: beauty and feminine power.
Parvana isn't thrilled about having to sit in the marketplace, which is pretty legit since her family's dressed her up as a boy and sent her out to more or less save them from complete starvation, so she sits there on her blanket and looks to the sky, wishing Father would return. And that's when she notices a "flicker of movement" (7.48) coming from the blacked out window. Was she imagining it? It doesn't matter—just the idea that someone is watching over her gives her hope and comfort.
And then Parvana sees the flicker again, except this time it's a woman's face, and she gives Parvana a quick smile before she pulls the window shut. Remember: women are not to be seen, not even in windows, so this is a big risk that the woman takes. Then a few days later, presents start falling on Parvana's blanket—a white handkerchief, a perfect red bead, and an embroidered cloth. These little gifts are signs of beauty in the ugly face of war, treats for the child down below the woman's window who has been forced into a very adult situation.
Needless to say, the Window Woman's gifts make Parvana happy. They are small bits of kindness and beauty in a challenging time, and make Parvana feel less alone. And insofar as these gifts and Parvana's sense of the woman's presence impact her experience in the marketplace, the Window Woman represents the fact that despite the Taliban's oppressive rules for women, they still have power; women are still present even as the Taliban tries hard to make that not true. And that, of course, is pretty beautiful in its own right.
While the person telling us this story is definitely outside the book (as is always the case with third-person narration), they only have access to Parvana's thoughts and feelings and, as such, we do too. We travel with Parvana wherever she goes, so when she's at market so are we—which means we have no idea what's going on, say, back at the apartment. We also never know what anyone else is thinking or feeling unless they let Parvana in on it.
The effect this creates on our experience as readers is twofold. First, by staying close to the eleven-year-old character, we are never unclear about who the bad guys are. Parvana is just a kid after all, and we never doubt whether she's to blame for what happens to her or her family—this keeps the whole good versus evil debate pretty black and white for us as readers.
The second thing this third person narration does, though, is it gives us a reliable source of information. Though Parvana's totally bright, she's still pretty young, so she wouldn't necessarily be the most reliable narrator—just think about what a nasty picture she might paint of Nooria, for instance. And since this book is historical fiction—and there are a whole lot of facts included in it—having a narrator who is a little bit better informed (and unbiased) than the main character makes sure we understand that the scene they're painting for us is one we can trust (even if we really don't like it).
Welcome to Afghanistan under Taliban rule, a country where women's freedoms have been stripped away and people live in extreme poverty. But Parvana—our main character—is happy, helping her weak Father back and forth to the market where he tries to earn a buck by reading people's letters for them (most folks are illiterate around here).
Sure, Parvana's family of five lives in a teeny tiny apartment (we're talking about one small room), and Parvana's big sister couldn't be more annoying if she tried, but it's all good. They are making the best of their life together, and though things are pretty bad outside—especially since the Taliban recently shut down the girls' schools—Parvana's family has a lot of love between them.
And here come the bad guys. The Talibs break into Parvana's family's apartment and kidnap Father, taking him prisoner. Mother falls into a deep depression, and the family runs way low on food and water. Time to send for reinforcements.
While buying some bread in the marketplace for her family, Parvana runs into Mrs. Weera (literally). She brings Mrs. Weera—a friend of Mother's—back to the apartment, where Mrs. W helps bring things to order.
A plan is hatched for how the family will survive: Parvana will wear her dead brother's clothes to work in the marketplace as Kaseem. This will make the family some money and, disguised as a boy, Parvana should be as safe as possible out and about on her own. Though Parvana is none too keen on this idea, she eventually concedes—she's really the only person who can do it, after all, and the alternative is pretty much that her family starves.
She likes her time in the market more than she'd expected, especially after she hooks up with her friend Shauzia from school, who is also disguised as a boy to support her family. But reality of the Taliban's violence hits home before long though, when the girls see soldiers chop off prisoners' hands for sport (it even takes place in a stadium). And though Parvana responds by taking a little break from the harsh realities of the outside world and hunkers down at home for a bit, we know that the Taliban's violent practices can still show up at any moment.
Parvana's whole life changes when Nooria decides to get married and move to Mazar. Mother and the kids will go for a few months to get her settled, but Parvana will stay behind in case Father comes home. You never know, right? But life is depressing.
While ducking out of the rain in an abandoned building one day, Parvana finds a women running from the Taliban. Pretending she is Malali, she finds the courage to rescue her and take her (Homa) to their apartment. Here, though, Homa tells Parvana and Mrs. Weera that when she left Mazar, the Taliban had taken over the area and were killing people (including Homa's whole family). Instead of escaping life under Taliban rule, Mother and Nooria and the little kids have actually walked right into it. Yikes. Parvana is terrified.
Fortunately Father returns soon, which is good, since clearly something has to be done to try to save the rest of the family.
Mrs. Weera and Parvana nurse Father back to health, and Parvana feels re-energized now that he is back; she works hard to pay for his medicine and help him get well. When she's not working, they all hang out in the apartment, reading his books and listening to Homa and Father speak English with each other. They even start to laugh again.
The word on the street is that most people in Mazar have fled the city and are living in refugee camps. This is all Father needs to hear, and he decides to pack up and head to Pakistan with Parvana to find his family.
Everyone makes plans to leave Afghanistan and head to Pakistan. Mrs. Weera and Homa will work in women's refugee camps; Shauzia will head in the same direction but travel with nomads instead. She and Parvana agree to meet in front of the Eiffel Tower twenty years later, so their friendship ends on a happy note.
As Parvana and Father leave Afghanistan in the back of the truck, she wonders what the next twenty years will be like and despite all the uncertainty ahead of her—will they find her family?—she feels hopeful as she watches Mount Parvana in the distance.