Monday, January 30, 2012
*Running the Rift, by Naomi Benaron
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2012
I decided to read this novel because of my interest in the origins of genocide in general and because for years I followed the ongoing situation in Rwanda, and then the war crimes trials that followed. There is still a great deal of fallout from this time period that continues to interest me as well. So when I heard about this book last year, I snapped it up via pre-order, curious to see how a woman from America was going to pull off a story about a boy who grows up in Rwanda during the time of the massacres. By and large she did a good job of it while simultaneously weaving the basics of this catastrophic time period into her story. The premise of the novel is also intriguing. But unlike the rest of the reading public, it seems, I just didn't go uber-gaga over this book, largely because it reads like a young adult novel. However, I think that once the word gets out about this book, it has the makings of a bestseller exactly because of its potential appeal to the young adult audience.
Divided into five parts and spanning a period of fourteen years, Running the Rift follows the life of Jean Patrick Nkuba, a Tutsi boy who grows up pretty sheltered, with a father who taught him that there is no difference between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes. With the death of Jean Patrick's father in a car accident, the family's situation changes, and Jean Patrick begins to discover that not everyone thinks the way his father did. While the family is coming to terms with their loss, wondering about the future, an incident occurs in which a group of Hutu boys hurl rocks through the windows of the family home. Jean Patrick chases after the gang, but fails to catch up to them, leaving him feeling guilty about not being a faster runner. The family moves to the home of Jean Patrick's uncle , where he and his older brother Roger did not initially want to go, where, as Roger thought, they would be "nothing but poor fishermen, running around dirty and eating with our fingers like the rest of Uncle’s children. ” Uncle and the rest of the family are definitely poor and life is harder there, but the brothers discover that there is more to wealth than money -- that a loving family is at the root of everything good in life. Things begin to change for Jean Patrick when an Olympic runner comes to his school and to celebrate, the school holds a race which he wins. The prize is a poster which the runner dedicates to Jean Patrick, calling him "our next Olympic hero." At this point, Jean Patrick's life dreams and ambitions are born, and as he moves on to secondary school, he begins training in earnest under Coach, a strange figure who seems to have more going on than just helping young men get to the Olympics, and who offers Jean Patrick a Hutu identity card to stay safe. It's running, not the political situation, that keeps Jean Patric focused while things begin to explode all around him; he becomes very well known after running the 800-meter with an Olympic qualifying time, and it looks like he may actually realize his dream. He's got good backing, too -- his picture appears in the paper with the Rwandan president; McDonald's hamburgers are flown in for a reception with an ambassador, and all eyes are on Jean Patrick. But over time, politics, propaganda and ultimately the murder of the president turn Rwanda into a full-blown, bloody killing ground and events occur that thrust Jean Patrick right into the heart of the nightmare. This is his story, set against a time when "no safe or sane place exists within the country," when Tutsis are hunted down just because they are not Hutus.
While the Hutu/Tutsi story is a bit more complicated than the way the author depicts it in this novel, she still does a good job of describing the atmosphere of horror during this time of madness. As events unfold, she examines the effects of this conflict on people at every level, from the family to the community to the nation, even to the world at large, where the Western countries more or less turn their backs to the slaughter. In terms of pacing, the story plods along for much of the first half of the novel, as the characters are introduced and established, as Jean Patrick's early life is set forth, and as change is beginning to rear its ugly head for the worse. My favorite section of Ms. Benaron's book, in terms of writing and prose, is in Book Three, when all hell breaks loose for Rwanda and for Jean Patrick as well -- it is there that the author amps up the pace, where the situation becomes very tense, enough to hold my attention for the longest time. This section, personally speaking, is where I believe the author's true writing potential comes shining through. If the rest of the book had conveyed this much intensity, it would have been a much better reading experience for me.
I'm sort of torn here -- on one hand, I appreciate the author's choice of subject matter and her willingness to tackle it and the fact that she brings this terrible situation to the attention of members of the reading public who may be familiar with events in Rwanda from movies or from TV news of years ago. The basic story is good, and she does manage to get across many of the terrors faced by a young person coming of age in Rwanda during this time. At the same time, with the exception of Book Three, I just didn't think it delivered that punch I was looking for, considering the topic at hand. After having finished it, I thought that Running the Rift was a book my daughter would enjoy much more than I did. It has that young-adult lit feel, and would not be out of place on high-school library shelves, or as a required text for a high-school history course. It really reminded me of books I read when I was younger, where there was enough to tug at my heart strings and to capture my intellectual interest, leading me to want to find out more about the topic. If the book is geared for readers of young adult fiction, then it's a perfect fit; if it was supposed to be more of a literary read, well, it just didn't do it for me.
Still, despite my personal feelings about the young-adult style, readers are loving this novel, and there are many good things about it to recommend. The book is extremely approachable in terms of reading, and despite the 365 pages, it moves quickly. If you're squeamish about violence, beware. Running the Rift works (imho) largely on an emotional level, so if that's what you're looking for, you'll probably love it.