The Breadwinner Trilogy by Deborah Ellis

Breadwinner TrilogyA powerful young adult read which includes the novels The Breadwinner, Parvana’s Journey and Mud City. The dedications for each of these novels are as follows: to the children of war; to children we force to be braver than they should have to be; to children lost and wandering, far from their homes. When The Breadwinner begins Parvana is eleven years old and in sixth grade, her sister Nooria is in high school, her sister Maryam is five and her brother Ali is two years old. They have been living in one room for more than a year. Parvana went to the market with her father (lost part of his leg when the school he taught at was bombed). She helped her father get to the market and she sat with him while he tried to sell the few items they could part with to try and raise money for food. Her father also read and wrote letters for Afghans who could not read or write.  Parvani spoke Dari and understood Pashtu and some English. They are living in Kabul and the Taliban has taken over the country. “Bombs had been part of Parvana’s whole life. Every day, every night, rockets would fall out of the sky, and someone’s house would explode.” One day four Taliban soldiers burst through the door. They dragged her father outside although Parvana tried to hold on to him. The other soldiers searched their room and threw things about. When Parvana tried to stop them she was beaten. And this is only the beginning. When her mother and sister go to Mazar, Parvana is left alone. She finds a friend named Shauzia. She has to disguise herself as a boy because girls cannot be on the street and she must go to the market and try to make some money.  In Parvana’s Journey her story continues and in Mud City we hear more of Shauzia’s story.

These are inspirational and informative stories about family and friendship in war ravaged countries that we hear of in the news daily. They have much to teach all readers about the lives behind the headlines. All three novels have won awards. The Breadwinner Trilogy is published by Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press in Toronto. Deborah Ellis can be researched at  I intend to read more of her work in the immediate future.

Dickens’ Update #14 (Book the Second:Riches; Issue 11)

In the first chapter of this issue (Fellow Travellers) we find three groups of tourists travelling “on the Swiss side of the Pass of the Great Saint Bernard and along the banks of the Lake of Geneva”. The footnotes of my Penguin edition tell me that Dickens visited the convent of the Great Saint Bernard in 1846. The picture below right shows the travellers gathered around the fire.  There are three groups of travellers: the first includes an elderly lady (Dickens lists her first to “fool” us), two older gentlemen, two young ladies and their brother accompanied by a courier, two footmen, two maids and four guides; the second includes one lady and two gentlemen;the third includes
a German tutor and three male students.
Travellers Bk 2 Ch 1

A new word, fourgon meaning the luggage wagon appears. A new character also appears:
Mrs. General. There is an amusing conversation about confined spaces in winter when it is almost too cold to go out and the host’s remark “Monsieur was not used to confinements ” confirms the identity of Mr. Dorrit for the reader. And Amy’s remark that she likes to see what has affected Arthur so much also informs us that she is visiting with Pet /Minnie Gowan. A mysterious stranger spies in the traveller’s book and confirms the identity of the Dorrit party which now includes Mrs. General, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Gowan and Blandois whom we last met drinking with Mr. Flintwinch in Chapter XXX, Issue 9.

In Chapter II we learn more about Mrs. General. She is the daughter of a clerical dignitary left in serious financial straits when her husband died and she hired herself out as a “governess”. She was engaged by Mr. Dorrit “to complete the education of his daughters, and to be their matron or chaperon.” Mrs. G’s reaction? “I am not, as I hope you are aware. a governess…”.Mr. Dorrit paid her 400 pounds a year. Dickens’ description of Mrs. G.: “A cool, waxy, blown-out woman, who had never lighted well.” And this, “Mrs. General had no opinions. Her way of forming a mind was to prevent it from forming opinions.”

In Chapter III, On The Road, a breakfast discussion among the Dorrits informs us that Fanny and Edward continue to be ashamed of their father’s time in the Marshalsea, by Amy’s befriending people who have slighted them and by her compassion for them (in this case, Pet Meagles-Gowan). They express their displeasure with Arthur Clennam as well:  “…it is incumbent upon all people in an exalted position but it is particularly so on this family…to make themselves respected.” (speech by Mr. Dorrit supporting Fanny and Edward-Tip’s position). Mr. Dorrit does say, however, that he does not support Fanny’s feeling towards Arthur although he doesn’t wish to resume communications with him.

They then begin to descend the mountain. Amy mistrusts Blandois but refrains from saying so as the others showed him favour. Fred (Mr. Dorrit’s older brother) has begun to show a “marked respect” for Amy which is heartening for the reader. They return to their hotel in Martigny where they find two strange travellers in one of their rooms. Mr. Dorrit becomes enraged by the attack on his dignity and that of his family.Family Dignity Affronted Bk2ChIII 477 (picture to right)  The travellers come down to leave and their identity is revealed: Mrs. Merdle no less and her son Mr. Sparkler.  Mrs. M pretends not to know Fanny but Sparkler certainly remembers her.  Amy keeps thinking she is in a dream as they set out for Venice. She thinks the carriage will pull up to the Marshalsea gate at any minute. In Venice they are housed in an old palace( six times the size of the Marshalsea) on the grand Canal. Amy was “timid of joining in their (family) gaities, and only asked to be left alone.”

In Chapter IV, A Letter from Little Dorrit, Amy reports to Arthur on her meeting with Mrs. Gowan and enquires after the Plornishes and Old Nandy who went to live with them. She also asks after Maggy. Dickens keeps Amy’s character consistent with what we know of her. She explains to Arthur that she is not adjusting very well to the new status of the family. She says she struggles “with the feeling that I [she] have come to be at a distance from him [her father] ; and that even in the midst of all the servants, he is deserted, and in want of me.”  She begs Arthur to remember her only as she was when he first knew her.

And so, at the end of Issue 11, Dickens builds upon our already deep empathy with Amy’s lonliness and her struggle to establish her own identity now that she is outside the only home she had ever known, the Marshalsea.

Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood

Re-read in January of 2013 as part of a re-reading event. I remembered much about these stories but some became clearer on this second read, in particular The Entities, The Labrador Fiasco and The Boys at the Lab. I think my favourites might be The Bad News and the White Horse. The following is from the White Horse:

“She and her mother weren’t exactly speaking. They weren’t exactly not speaking, either. The silence that had taken the place of speech between them had become its own form of speech. In this silence, language was held suspended. It contained many questions, though no definite answers.” (page 151)

Gina Wisker in Margaret Atwood: An Introduction to Critical Views of Her Fiction writes:

“…while there are many similarities between what we know of Atwood’s own life and that of Nell, there are many dissimilarities too. This is a construction, a fiction.”

and these:
“Ageing and loss of memory, the precariousness of age, all emerge as themes through the first tale of Nell and Tig ageing, Nell’s mother’s illness, and the ageing of Tig’s ex-wife, Oona, along with the old horse and various other deaths.”

“Much of these rather gentle and exploratory stories break new ground with their subject matter, particularly the treatment of relationships in middle age,with which the book starts and ends.”Moral Disorder

In the story titled The Headless Horseman, Nell and her younger sister go back to the parental home to clear things out and I love this paragraph near the end of the story:

“Now we’re at the door. The persistence of material objects is becoming an amazement to me. It’s the same door — the one I used to go in through, out through, year after year, in my daily clothing or in various outfits and disguises, not thinking at all that I would one day be standing in front of this very same door with my grey-haired little sister. But all doors used regularly are doors to the afterlife.”

In the story called Moral Disorder, I found another passage that was packed with insights into the experience of a woman joining her lover and his children in a new home :

“I ‘m the only person here who isn’t related to anyone, thought Nell. She was feeling cut off. She didn’t get into the city very often any more, and when she did it was on business — she met with publishers, and with the authors whose books she was editing — so she didn’t see her friends very much. In addition to which, her parents weren’t speaking to her, as such, though they weren’t not speaking to her either. Conversationally, she’d been put into a grey zone, a lot like a bus station waiting room: cold air, silences, topics limited to states of health and the weather. Her parents hadn’t got used to the fact that Nell had actually moved in with a man who was still married to someone else. She’d never been so blatant, in her former life. She’d given some thought to appearances. She’d been sneakier. But now that her change of address cards had so flagrantly been sent, there was no comfort room left for sneakiness. ”

Nell is definitely someone I would like to share a few cups of tea with, in fact, I think I will drop by her world for a comforting reread very soon.

Unless by Carol Shields

I reread this for A Month of Re-Reading, an event on Heavenali’s blog. To do this write up I decided to research my reading history  as regards this title. My first read was on September 26, 2002. The entry I made was as follows: “Started late one afternoon and finished the next afternoon – the fastest read for me in a long time. Powerful story and impressive writing – nothing overstated, everything seems just right, just enough. Careful, thoughtful. Messages strong and clear but not overpowering or preachy or out of place. Wow! It is shortlisted for the Booker – I do hope it wins!”  I read it again on January 11, 2003 for an online list: “A more powerful experience the second time and more rewarding in insights and the writer’s skill. Discussion on line begins in four days.” I read it again on September 18, 2005 : “Third reread and still making enjoyable discoveries. Work is still fresh and theme more relevant than ever. More notes made to go to book club…Particularly apt reread due to the closing of Women in Print in Vancouver on September 11. A letter from the store owners contained a Simone de Beauvoir quote (about red curtains in Unless) about being vigilant re losing few gains for feminism.”

So this appears to be my fourth read. UnlessI regret having missed it between 2006 and 2013. I think I need to make it an annual read. This time I was taken with the chapter titles/designations and the epigraph by George Eliot:

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

The chapter titles in order: here’s, nearly, once, wherein, nevertheless, so, otherwise, instead, thus, yet, insofar as, thereof, every, regarding, hence, next, notwithstanding, thereupon, despite, throughout, following, hardly, since, only, unless, toward, whatever, any, whether, ever, whence, forthwith, as, beginning with, already, hitherto, not yet.

Here’s how unless appears in its chapter:

“Novels help us turn down the volume of our own interior “discourse,” but unless they can provide an alternative, hopeful course, they’re just so much narrative crumble. Unless, unless.

Unless is the worry word of the English language.  It flies like a moth around the ear, you hardly hear it, and yet everything depends on its breathy presence.  Unless — that’s the little subjective mineral you carry along in your pocket crease.  It’s always there, or else not there.  (If you add a capital s to unless, you get Sunless, or Sans Soleil, a very odd Chris Marker film.)

Unless you’re lucky, unless you’re healthy, fertile, unless you’re loved and fed, unless you’re clear about your sexual direction, unless you’re offered what others are offered, you go down in the darkness, down to despair. Unless provides you with a trap door, a tunnel into the light, the reverse side of not enough. Unless keeps you from drowning in the presiding arrangements. ” etc

My final words about this fourth read: better than ever!