Study Guide

The Breadwinner Summary

By Deborah Ellis

The Breadwinner Summary

The story begins in the Kabul marketplace where Parvana is helping her crippled father. He reads letters for money and sells anything Parvana's family doesn't absolutely need in order to put food on the table.

For about a year and half, the country has been under Taliban control, and living conditions are dismal to say the least—bombs have destroyed buildings and homes, and land mines abound (one of which killed Parvana's brother). Women are forbidden from attending school, and they have to wear burqas to cover their bodies and faces, in addition to not being allowed outside without a man. Parvana is lucky because she gets to go to the marketplace with Father, but her mother, sister, and two younger siblings have been stuck in their tiny apartment.

And, as if things aren't bad enough, soldiers kidnap Father and take him away to prison.

Now what? Mother falls into a deep depression, and food and water become slim without Father around to provide for them. Luckily Parvana runs into Mrs. Weera though, an old friend of Mother's, and she offers to help—Mrs. Weera and Mother are both part of a woman's group and once they get together the brain juices start flowing.

Someone has to go leave the apartment in order to buy food for the family, and since Parvana is the only one that can pass for a boy, her family disguises her as one, cutting her hair and dressing her in her dead brother's clothes. Parvana puts her blanket in the same spot in the marketplace, and does what Father did—reads letters for money—and by doing so, earns enough to buy tea and rice. She feels pretty proud of herself, and rightly so—and she even finds a way to bring her siblings out for an hour or two. Yay for getting out of the house and into the fresh air.

Meanwhile, Parvana learns a lot about the Taliban soldiers by reading their letters. And as she does, she comes to see them as human beings with feelings and emotions—which is a pretty generous response given how generally crappy they make life for her and her family.

Parvana becomes aware of the presence of a woman looking down on her blanket from the window above. Though she never sees the Window Woman, Parvana knows she is there, and also knows that this Window Woman is the person leaving presents on her blanket—beads, an embroidered handkerchief, that sort of thing. It's quite exciting, and helps keeps Parvana's spirits up too—everybody looks forward to getting presents, after all.

In the marketplace, Parvana runs into a girl from school who is also dressing up like a boy to make money for her own family; Shauzia and Parvana quickly become good friends.

Neither Parvana nor Shauzia are making enough money to support their family—mayday—but Shauzia hears about a great gig at the graveyard, digging up bones and selling them. Seems easy enough, right? And it is—the girls go digging, and wind up with enough money to buy tables.

One day Parvana and Shauzia go to watch a soccer game. Except it turns out not to be a soccer game, and the two girls are horribly surprised when instead they find the Taliban chopping off prisoners' hands for sport. This sickens poor Parvana, and she decides to stay home for a few days. The whole war and violence thing really gets to a person after a while, you know?

After a few days off, Parvana's back in action, ready to hit the streets again. When she returns to the marketplace, she is happy to see that the Window Woman is still watching over her, though one day she is certain her mysterious friend is being slapped around.

Upon returning home one day, Parvana is shocked to hear some big family news: her older sister, Nooria, has agreed to marry a man from Pakistan—something she's doing just to get the heck out of Kabul. Nooria wants to go school, become a teacher, and—frankly—burn her burqa, but she's got zero chance of doing any of these things where she currently lives. So Mother and the children will go with Nooria to Pakistan to get her ready for the wedding, but Parvana opts to stay behind in case Father is released from prison.

One rainy night, Parvana hears a women crying in an abandoned building—this stranger is running from the Taliban and isn't wearing a burqa. Parvana bravely brings the woman back to her house, where Mrs. Weera takes care of Homa—a.k.a. the crying woman—and she stays with them.

And guess what? Father comes back. Hip hip hooray, right? Unfortunately, though, when he shows up on the apartment doorstep he's in pretty rough shape—he was barely fed and badly beaten in prison. Mrs. Weera comes to the rescue (again), though, and she nurses him back to health while he enjoys Homa's company (they both can speak English). Sadly, though, Homa tells them that the Taliban have taken over the city where Nooria and Mother are. Not good.

Parvana and Father head to Pakistan to find their family, and Shauzia bolts with some shepherds, ultimately hoping to land in Paris where she and Parvana plan to meet again in twenty years. Meanwhile Mrs. Weera, her granddaughter, and Homa make plans to travel to Pakistan and help out with women in exile. Everyone is on the move.

As Parvana sits in the back of a truck next to Father, leaving Afghanistan, she takes one last look at Mount Parvana and "the snow on its peak sparkling in the sun" (15.80)—and as she does, though their futures are unsure, Parvana feels a sense of hope.

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