Testimonies, historians, novels, movies, documentaries and especially the distance of time have all given us all a limited appreciation of the horrors of the Holocaust. Not being survivors how could we ever fully understand what it was like? What about the more recent holocausts and genocides? Who is telling those stories? Who is attempting to make us more aware, more understanding and more outraged about these atrocities? One person is first time novelist NaomiBenaron in her Bellwether Prize winning book, Running the Rift.
Running the Rift is the story of the Rwandan Genocide as seen through the eyes of a young athlete. According to various human rights watchdog organizations an estimated 800,000 people were murdered during the Rwandan genocide over the course of a year. To say the least that is a daunting event to try and capture on paper.
It is 1985 and Jean Patrick Nkuba is a young boy as Running the Rift begins. His life has been happy. He is part of a large, close knit family. His Father is a respected teacher. He is a gifted, record breaking middle distance runner and dreams of going to the Olympics. Jean Patrick doesn’t know this yet but there is a shadow already hanging over his life. The Nkuba are Tutsi. This heritage will put his family on a collision course with horror.
The sudden death of Jean Patrick’s Father coincides with the beginning of the Hutus governments’ more overt restrictions on the Tutsis and the stepping up of resistance to the government by the Rwandan Patriotic Force (RPF), a Tutsi-led rebel army. Over the course of the next ten years a civil war will tear away the Nkubas security and their future. One by one friends, employers and neighbors turn away from the family because of their ethnicity. Jean Patrick becomes a political pawn when the government wants to use him as a human rights poster child. As the government sanctioned genocide accelerates not only is Jean Patrick’s dreams of representing his country in the Olympics on the failure track but as a Tutsi his life is also endangered.
Running the Rift is an impressive novel. Benaron has done an incredible job of tracking the origins of the government approved interracial strife in Rwanda and its drastic hastening into a holocaust. In a situation where there is a crystal clear right and wrong she does not take the easy road and use cardboard characters to push her story forward and expose the villainy. Instead Benaron allows us to experience Jean Patrick’s journey from innocence to inhumanity to hope with his and every other character’s flaws and strengths as they are tested. The juxtaposition of this beautiful country and the citizens who strive for the betterment of their country and the other citizens who either participated in the genocide or looked the other way makes for a powerful story and Naomi Benaron captures it all.