- Deborah Ellis (Author)
Parvana's Journey. Groundwood (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Judy Brown
"To children we force to be braver than they have to be." With these words that are dedicated to children and that implicate adults, Deborah Ellis launches Parvana’s Journey, the second of her children’s novels set in present-day Afghanistan. This is a book about the day-to-day bravery of children in a land ravaged by adults. It is a story ironically unsuited for grown-ups who, if they read it with care, will find it harrowing, haunting, disturbing in what it says about war-making—the worst of adult crimes against children. On every page of this small book is this subtext: adult wars, whatever rationale we devise for them, are making collateral damage of the world’s children.
Adults were everywhere in The Breadwinner, Ellis’s first novel. Set in the time of the Taliban regime, it records the efforts of a younger and feistier Parvana to support her family by masquerading and working as a boy in Kabul’s marketplace, boneyard, soccer stadium. This girl had a place to call home, a purpose, a group of people who knew of and cared about her. She had reason to hope.
But what a difference a year makes. In Parvana’s Journey, the Afghan people’s diaspora is underway, and Parvana is caught in it as she wanders her country in search of what may be left of her family. The grownups have disappeared, died, retreated to their mountain caves. Or they fly the skies above in their surveillance planes and bombers. The Taliban are shadowy—routed and on the run. In the opening chapter, Parvana’s father, with whom she has been walking cross-country to reach the rest of her family somewhere in the north, lies dead in an unmarked grave outside a nameless village. His daughter, with neither map nor compass to her name, will never be able to locate his resting place again. And until they meet accidentally in a crowded and chaotic refugee camp on the border with Pakistan in the final moments of the narrative, the whereabouts and fates of Parvana’s mother and siblings are unknown.
Without parents, teachers, or guardians of any sort, without food, clean water, warm clothing, Parvana and three other children—Asif, a disabled and abused cave-dweller; Hassan, a wailing baby whom Parvana names when she finds him beside the body of his dead mother; and Leila, a sprightly little girl (convinced of her own invincibility) who scavenges minefields in search of food and booty—come together in desperation and form a temporary family. This is what it means and feels like to be a refugee, Ellis shows us. The children are starving much of the time; they’re afraid and angry all of the time; they struggle to resist the absolute despair or exhaustion afflicting the few adults they do encounter (Leila’s catatonic grandmother; a nameless woman keening inconsolably on a hillside; the helpless aid worker in the refugee camp). Only two members of this brave quartet survive the events of the novel. Two die—in bitter and graphic circumstances.
Forced to be braver than they should have to be, this quartet copes as characters in children’s books often do, by creating a fantasy world—an arcadia Parvana and Leila refer to not as Wonderland or Neverland or Oz, but the Green Valley. It is a place of plenty and of peace: full of food and magically uncontaminated water, where "[a] 11 the children ... have both arms and legs. ... No one is blind, and no one is unhappy." In the Valley, children are safe from bombers with their anonymous pilots and deadly pay-loads dropped indiscriminately (as it seems to them) on the targets below. Parvana also persists throughout in writing letters to her absent friend Shauzia (her companion who was setting out to make her way to France when she and Parvana parted company in The Breadwinner). These letters, in which Parvana maintains her belief that Shauzia and she will meet someday at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, offer moments of terrible, futile hope, and are some of the most painful passages for adult readers venturing into the pages of this children’s novel.
As adults reading about war, we are conditioned to look for geopolitical details, for heroes to admire, for enemies to blame, and most of all for outcomes. We take comfort in finding factions to praise and blame. Deborah Ellis denies adult readers this kind of grim gratification. For her child characters, all is chaos, and there is no comfort to be found in the facts, the maps, the logistics, the punditry.
Ellis shows in scene after scene what it feels like to be alone, to be powerless, to be caught in the crossfire, exploded in the minefields, rained on by bombs in the night. Who planted the landmine that blew off Asif’s leg? Who’s to blame? We are not allowed to know. Who drops the bombs that imperil all the children? The rumour is that American planes are responsible, but those in the story never know. Nor does knowing the national identity of the warriors matter. This is what it feels like to be turned from human child into collateral damage, to be robbed of every one of the rights set out in the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child.
Parvana s Journey is a book for older children serious about understanding the world they will inherit. But adults should read Parvana’s Journey too—before the war in Iraq of 2003 makes the 2002 war in Afghanistan a dimly remembered set of blurred images in our overcrowded historical memories. We should read it to see in Ellis’s images of children—starving, blighted, wounded, dying, surviving—how we are forcing children to be braver than they should have to be. We should wonder why. It’s the least we can do.
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MLA: Brown, Judy. Collateral Damage. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #179 (Winter 2003), Literature & War. (pg. 131 - 132)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.