Veil of Tears

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nginx/1.14.0 (Ubuntu)Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is no place for children, especially young girls. That’s why Parvana, the 11-year-old heroine of Deborah Ellis’ children’s novel The Breadwinner (Oxford University Press; 170 pages), has to make a choice: remain a girl, a virtual prisoner like all the women of Afghanistan, or cut her hair and try to pass as a boy. Parvana becomes “Kaseem.”

As adults desperate to understand Afghanistan clear the shelves of Ahmed Rashid’s book on the Taliban, they are also searching for ways to satisfy their children’s curiosity. Ellis’ starkly realistic novel, billed as the only children’s book out on the subject in English, is expected to have almost 150,000 copies in print by year’s end. The novel has the grit of a survivor’s tale, which it is in part. Ellis based the story on the daughter of an Afghan woman she met while working in a Pakistani refugee camp.

Ellis doesn’t shy away from depicting the everyday brutality of life in Afghanistan, down to the family’s bombed-out Kabul home, crumbling under the weight of too many wars. Parvana watches Taliban soldiers sever the hands of thieves in a packed soccer stadium, and some parents may feel such details are too graphic for 10-to-12-year-old readers.

Though Ellis curiously omits any discussion of religion, she captures the claustrophobia of being female and young in Afghanistan. Ellis is close to finishing a sequel that will follow Parvana through the present-day bombing. But don’t expect a rosy picture of the war. Near the end of The Breadwinner, a friend suggests to Parvana: “Maybe someone should drop a big bomb on the country and start again.”

“They’ve tried that,” Parvana said. “It only made things worse.”

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