Imagine that a man who was once friendly suddenly spewed hatred. That a girl who flirted with you in the lunchroom refused to look at you. That your coach secretly trained soldiers who would hunt down your family. Jean Patrick Nkuba is a gifted Tutsi boy who dreams of becoming Rwanda’s first Olympic medal contender in track. When the killing begins, he is forced to flee, leaving behind the woman, the family, and the country he loves. Finding them again is the race of his life.
Spanning ten years during which a small nation was undone by ethnic tension and Africa’s worst genocide in modern times, this novel explores the causes and effects of Rwanda’s great tragedy from Nkuba’s point of view. His struggles teach us that the power of love and the resilience of the human spirit can keep us going and ultimately lead to triumph.
“The politics will be familiar to those who have followed Africa’s crises (or seen Hotel Rwanda), but where Benaron shines is in her tender descriptions of Rwandan’s natural beauty and in her creation of Jean Patrick, a hero whose noble innocence and genuine human warmth are impossible not to love.” (Kirkus Reviews)
“Benaron accomplishes the improbable feat of wringing genuine loveliness from unspeakable horror . . . It is a testament to Benaron’s skill that a novel about genocide . . . conveys so profoundly the joys of family, friendship, and community.” (Publishers Weekly)
“First novelist Benaron, who has actively worked with refugee groups, won the 2010 Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction for this unflinching and beautifully crafted account of a people and their survival. In addition, she compellingly details the growth and rigorous training of a young athlete. VERDICT Readers who do not shy away from depictions of violence will find this tale of social justice a memorable read, and those interested in coming-of-age stories set in wartime will want it as well. Highly recommended.” (Library Journal)
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A Power read
I'd recommend this as a powerful socially conscious book that tackles a disturbing part of modern history
In a book filled with expressions in unfamiliar language and cultural, he brought a sense of the place and people that I wouldn't have without hearing it.
Naomi Benaron's _Running the Rift_ is an excellent, but at times, difficult read: difficult in content not in execution. It is the story of Jean Patrick, a Rwandan Tutsi who is a runner and of his family and friends. We first meet Jean Patrick when he is a boy when he learns of his father's death. His father had always tried to believe that the peace between Hutu and Tutsi would last, but that belief is not shared by his wife, his brother in law, or Jean Patrick's older brother Roger. We follow the progress of Jean Patrick's life - from his waiting by the radio after taking national tests to see if he is top in his class so he can go to secondary school on scholarship (government quota's limited how many Tutsi's could continue schooling) to his days as a runner training at university for the Olympics. Throughout the novel the reader sees Jean Patrick's stubborn determination - to be the best runner, and to ignore the politics and the building tension around him. We see how he is popular and how people make concessions because although he is Tutsi, he is a world-class runner. We also see the embedded hate simply because he is not the favored class of Rwandan - he tolerates being threatened, beaten, insulted and worse because he, and others like him, cannot fight back.
Through Jean Patrick and his experiences we learn of the cultural and history of Rwanda and we see the ever present bias that pits one group of people against another — people who have been taught that despite their common language and culture — that they are different, and one is superior and the other is a threat. Jean Patrick sees his running as something that can represent all of Rwanda and he is encouraged by family and his coach to use that to his advantage, and to do whatever is necessary, even if it means denying his heritage. It is his girlfriend Bea, however, that pushes him to see more that is going on around him. She is Hutu, but her father is a journalist and willing to defy those in power to let the world know of what is happening in Rwanda.
What Jean Patrick tries to ignore, the audience sees and the story pushes us to what we know will be the genocide. A history we, especially American's, have often only have a vague sense of. The novel's impact is that it is small story - one boy from one family in one province of Rwanda - yet manages to show how the true horror of the Rwandan genocide was not that it was perpetrated by a government that sent troops to round up and kill or by an invading force, but by a minority of hardliners who convinced neighbors to turn on neighbors. Over the course of a few weeks, an estimated million Tutsi and Hutu's who aided them or were seen as sympathizers were murdered by fellow Rwandan's who used machete's, clubs and knives far more than guns and grenades or camps.
Benaron doesn't dwell on the violence, but paints enough detail to leave the reader with a sense of horror at what happened, and what the West didn't do. While 'fictional' violence doesn't tend to impact me on a personal level, knowing that what Benaron shows the audience is only a sliver of the real violence of those months, it is enough to leave me with bad dreams. At the end however, the audience is left knowing that while so few survived and lost everything, they yet somehow retain hope, even if that hope is slow in rising.
The title of Benaron's novel refers to the geological feature of the area (the tectonic rift formed by the violent upheaval of the earth's crust), but also calls to mind the attempt of Jean Patrick to live and navigate between worlds that have a history of violent collision. Science - physics and geological feature in the story and act as metaphors, as does the sport of running. In the notes, the author says that she was a serious runner, and it shows in the descriptions of runners, and racing.
I'll note here that, as a book written about such a complex situation by someone from outside of the culture, there has been some accusations of cultural appropriation. I think those are unfounded in this case (and perhaps leveled by individuals who haven't read it) because Benaron has done her homework - both learning the history of a nation and developing an understanding of a cultural that has seen tremendous upheaval and loss. He characters are never stereotypes and are complex individuals. I listened to parts of this on audiobook and it moves lyrically - she has spent extended time in Rwanda living with Rwandans and her love of them and the country shows in her writing. The audiobook gave me a sense of the language - its metaphors and rhythms, while her details gave me an sense of a culture I didn't know, and made me cheer for characters I knew in my heart were doomed.
This book is likely to stick with me for a long time - both negatively and positively. Benaron didn't write an unbelievable against the odds ending, and I am thankful for that, having read many articles and accounts of the Genocide, but it also wasn't a bleak ending. A powerful story that should be read by those who like their fiction with a social consciousness.
Excellent character development and a compelling story!
- Bambi L. Statz