Running the Rift
by Naomi Benaron
Algonquin Books, January 2012
From the inside flap:
Running the Rift follows the progress of Jean Patrick Nkuba from the day he knows that running will be his life to the moment he must run to save his life. A naturally gifted athlete, he sprints over the thousand hills of Rwanda and dreams of becoming his country’s first Olympic medal winner in track.
But Jean Patrick is a Tutsi in a world that has become increasingly restrictive and violent for his people. As tensions mount between the Hutu and Tutsi, he holds fast to his dream that running might deliver him, and his people, from the brutality around them. But the day comes when he realizes there is only one way he can continue competing, and suddenly he’s thrust into a world where it’s impossible to stay apolitical–where the man who sold him bread a few weeks ago now spews hatred, where an identity card bearing the right word becomes his most prized possession, and where the woman he loves may be lost to him forever.
Running the Rift, Naomi Benaron’s first novel and winner of the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, tells the story of the Rwandan genocide in a very personal way. Although the story of Jean Patrick is fictional, it is based on the events surrounding the killing of an estimated 800,000 people in Rwanda in 1994. The facts alone make this one of the most horrendous, heinous acts in recent history, but by telling the story from the point of view of a particular person, Benaron reminds us that those who were murdered aren’t just statistics–they were people with names and faces and lives and dreams, just like the rest of us. The only thing that made them different was the social construction of their ethnicity.
Benaron is a good writer and the characters in Running the Rift are very realistic. I had already done quite a bit of reading and research on the genocide in Rwanda when it happened–my heart was already broken by the murder of so many innocent people–but reading about it from the perspective of a child who grew up surrounded by the mounting tension in the mid 1980s and early 1990s, and who then had to experience the killing of his friends and family, just broke my heart even more. And though Jean Patrick’s story is filled with almost as much hope as heartbreak, I just cannot imagine–I mean, really wrap my head around–what it must have been like for the people living in Rwanda during the genocide. It is more complicated and more awful than any verbal explanation that could ever be given. But through extensive research and help from survivors of the genocide, Benaron was able to write a story that captures not only the horror of what happened in Rwanda, but a story that also captures the compassion, goodwill, strength, and resilience that could not be snuffed out even in the face of that horror.
Running the Rift–while heartbreaking and hard to read at times–is an excellent book. I highly recommend it.
(To learn more about Naomi Benaron, please visit her official website.)
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