If you stretch a spring long enough, far enough, the metal will fail and the spring will snap. The same with a human body. The same with a human heart. The same, even, with a country. – from Running the Rift, page 231 –
There are many horrific events in the historical record. The Rwandan Genocide which occurred in 1994 and resulted in the deaths of more than 800,000 people (or close to 20% of the country’s population) is, perhaps, one of the most tragic. The violence took place over a 100 day period, although there were small outbreaks of violence in the years leading up to the tragedy – episodes which pointed to a build up of rage and misunderstanding between two ethnic groups: the Hutu and the Tutsi. The long-standing tension between these two groups escalated in part due to agitation by political and military leaders. The slaughter of hundreds of thousands of civilians occurred while the rest of the world looked on and did nothing.
It is this heartbreaking episode of genocide which informs Naomi Benaron’s affecting novel Running the Rift. Benaron opens her story in 1984, ten years before the tragedy, with a young Tutsi boy named Jean Patrick and his family. Jean Patrick loves to run and he has dreams of going on to college despite the difficulty which the Tutsi people face in attending secondary schools. As the chapters unfurl, the years slip past and Jean Patrick comes of age. He is a dreamer, an extraordinary athlete, and a young man with a generous heart. He loves his tight-knit family and clings to the memory of his father. Eventually he finds himself training to become an Olympic runner. He falls in love with a beautiful Hutu woman named Bea who is smart, fiery, and on the path to becoming an activist on the heels of her journalist father. But behind the hope which Jean Patrick holds in his heart, is an uncertain future. There are ominous signs that all is not right in Rwanda. There is the rumble of civil war. There is the hatred toward the Tutsi people being fanned by an outspoken Hutu militaristic government. And, eventually, the day will come when everything Jean Patrick holds dear, including his life, will become threatened.
Running the Rift is a heartbreaking, character-driven novel about the resilience of the human spirit in the face of unimaginable horror and loss. Benaron builds her story slowly, taking time to develop the characters and unveil their simple lives against the backdrop of the stunning Rwandan countryside. Jean Patrick lives and breathes on the page, as does his counterpart, Bea. The reader begins to care deeply about these characters and worry for them seeps in as the novel progresses.
I turned the final hundred pages of Running the Rift with my heart in my throat and tears in my eyes because at its heart, this book is about individuals. It is not about an historical event. It is about the people, the families, the individual lives which were destroyed or forever changed during those fateful days in 1994. It is unimaginable. It is horrifying.
I remember when the Rwandan Genocide happened. I was living in California and I remember the news footage of people laying slaughtered in the streets. I remember asking myself how this could happen and why no one stopped it. What Benaron’s novel does so exquisitely is to get beneath the headlines and examine the daily lives of the people living in Rwanda in the years leading up to the tragedy. She uncovers the tensions and the complexities of a country in flux and how misunderstandings between ethnic groups can grow into something so hate-filled that neighbors and friends can turn on each other.
Benaron explores themes of forgiveness and redemption in her novel which I found hopeful. The author has worked with Rwandan genocide survivors and visited Rwanda where she has an adopted son, so her insight into the aftermath of the genocide feels authentic.
Running the Rift won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction and it is well deserving of this literary award which recognizes “fiction that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships.” This is a novel which is sublimely crafted and highly recommended.
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