A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this book addresses class differences and the treatment of women in Pakistan, including arranged marriages and girls' limited opportunities for education. Nazia's mother tells her, "All you can hope for is to get married to a good man and pray that he treats you well. That is your fate." Men are presented as lying, lazy, thieving scoundrels; it is women who hold families together.
What's the story?
Living in Pakistan, 14-year-old Nazia is an obedient daughter, helping her mother with her two younger siblings. In this culture, girls defer to their mothers and then their mother-in-laws \"in all matters, from clothing to decorating.\" After her father is injured, her mother pulls Nazia out of school to work as a maid. This lowly job and the theft of her dowry jeopardize Nazia's impending arranged marriage to her much-older cousin. Nazia struggles to support her family, facing life as a servant or as an unwilling wife. Against her mother's advice, Nazia befriends and assists another servant trying to escape his situation. As she discovers her own inner resolve, can she find a way to help her family without sacrificing herself?
Is it any good?
Despite its heavy topics, BENEATH MY MOTHER'S FEET is a fast, compelling read. Nazia's good heart and spirit balance her many complaints (all legitimate) about the unfairness of her circumstances. Lush details of smells, foods, and clothing transport readers to this exotic place, but young readers may strain to comprehend a culture where children "all follow whatever path our mothers have laid out for us. . . Nobody cares if you're happy."
The author, who lived in Pakistan for several years, offers a truthful -- if bleak -- picture of poverty and oppression, with Nazia's mother willing to beg for a place for her children to stay after they lose their home. Younger readers might need additional explanations for several cultural references, such as the dowry. With its strong family relationships, interesting cultural details, and girl-empowerment theme, this would make a great pick for a mother-daughter book club. The tantalizing dishes mentioned (from naan to curry to spiced rice) and a bounty of discussion topics (friendship, duty, women's rights) leave plenty to chew on, both literally and figuratively.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how cultural expectations for women in Pakistan and elsewhere are very different than in the United States and Canada. One character says, "A woman without a husband is a woman less than worthless." How does that attitude affect Nazia's mother and her hopes for Nazia? What else have you learned about women in other cultures?