I confess...I'm always fascinated by stories detailing the unique trials and triumphs of women in harrowing historical periods but rarely seek them out actively. So I was very pleased to select The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon to receive from the folks at Harper to review.
The author journeys to Afghanistan to find and tell the story of women who helped ensure the survival of their families and communities during the Taliban's reign. She meets a woman named Kamela and the book focuses on the dressmaking business that she ran, along with her siblings (mostly sisters, but one of her brothers helps as an escort and with other duties), in a Kabul suburb. Kamela's family had been well-off prior to the Taliban's rule and education was highly valued for both the nine daughters and two sons. The story highlights the vast changes that the Taliban brought, noting that the county had long suffered from political struggles but that Kamela went from an involved student to being more like a prisoner in her own home. Kamela finds a need and learns to navigate the climate in order to create a dressmaking business that brings much needed money to her family and to neighbors as well.
I give the book four out of five stars. It is a story of strength and survival. The telling is very simple, although I got a little lost at times with the multiple siblings and neighbors. It is a story with a lot of hope and highlights the unique strength of women in oppressive regimes. It isn't really a political history, or even a social history. It doesn't claim to be an "average" woman's tale and I would have liked a bit more insight into how other women (esp those with less fortunate families) compared to Kamela's story, but that's probably a different book. As it stands, I'd recommend this to readers who enjoy women's history as told through an individual lens. It is a portrait of survival.