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Book Review: Running The Rift by Naomi Benaron


Naomi Benaron, winner of the Bellwether Prize for fiction, wrote a book that needed to be written. The war in Rwanda in the 1990s and the resulting genocide was well documented in nightly news coverage, in shows like 60 Minutes, and in an award nominated movie, Hotel Rwanda. The cynical side of me, however, can’t help from feeling that much of what was shown on the news and even presented in the film, starring Don Cheadle, may have been spun in such a way to make us - viewers living in the western world - feel, perhaps, that the efforts of aid groups, the United Nations and various governments was good enough. I’m not an activist nor am I a political scientist and I haven’t spoken to any kind of expert on Rwanda before writing this review but Ms. Benaron’s novel offers a feeling that it was written by someone in the know; like she had seen the atrocities firsthand or lived with Rwandans who had survived them. Running The Rift is as much an historical account of the events of that time and place as it is literary entertainment. I’ll admit that I didn’t follow the news shows’ report for report and I didn’t read every newspaper article that dealt with Rwanda so, in many ways, Running The Rift became my introduction to Rwandan political and civil war history.

Told through the eyes of Jean Patrick Nkuba, a Tutsi tribesman who is a standout 800-meter runner and Olympics hopeful, Ms. Benaron’s novel deals with issues of identity, honoring one’s family and dealing and coming through tragedy. It is the issues of identity and family that first brought me to Running The Rift. My own novel, Back Kicks And Broken Promises, deals with both issues so, naturally, I was drawn to the comparisons between the two books. I’m also a track coach and runner so reading about Jean Patrick’s training and competing was sure to be something I’d be into. These cosmetic attractions, however, soon became less important as I read on. I learnt about the RPF, the Interahamwe, the influence of the RTLM radio, the Hutu and Tutsi tribes, and the political structure of Rwanda at the time.

In spite of the tragedies that surround the story of Running The Rift, Ms. Benaron does a superb job of keeping her story that of a young man making his mark in the world, negotiating love and trying to fulfill a dream of achieving something that would honour him, his family and his country. It is a coming of age story that forces its protagonist to grow up very quickly and Ms. Benaron does this deftly with prose that isn’t heavy-handed, settings that truly pull the reader in and, like I said before, the sensitivity of someone who really knows her story and the place she has put it in and the people she has chosen to tell it. As I progressed from one chapter to the next, I felt like I was being taken on a tour of Rwanda. As a runner, I could see myself running alongside Jean Patrick Nkuba. (Well, probably behind him because I’m nowhere near as fast he is.) In fact, outside of the dangers of the war, I could see myself hanging out and enjoying the Rwandan cuisine with Jean Patrick, his coach, his girlfriend and his teammates.

Running The Rift, a story that is moving, illuminating and told honestly, is a book that will appeal not only to individuals who have a connection to Rwanda or an interest in Africa. In one part of the book, Jean Patrick’s track coach hands him an identity card that states he is Hutu and not Tutsi. Being Hutu would give Jean Patrick privileges and safety. However, even though the card says he’s Hutu, everyone knows he’s really Tutsi. This part of the book reminded me of the Koreans during the Japanese occupation; Koreans who had to give up all aspects of their native Korean culture, including their names, in order to survive in their Japanese controlled homeland. I was also reminded of the Japanese-Americans during the 1940s, born in the United States and who had no affiliation with Japan, that were relocated to internment camps - Americans locking up Americans - after Japan bombed Pearl Harbour.

Americans locking up Americans and Rwandans killing off Rwandans simply because they’re different kinds of Americans and Rwandans - sadly, this really happened. Let’s not forget, too, of the Bosnian Genocide and the ethnic cleansing campaign of the also (ironically) early 1990s conducted by the Bosnia Serb Army.

Whatever you’re into and whatever you read or watch, as Ms. Benaron’s Jean Patrick Nkuba shows us in Running The Rift, it is the strength of our humanity and recognizing that we are more similar than we are different that keeps us waking up every morning and it’s the power of the human spirit that keeps us going when things are at their bleakest. Read Running The Rift for education and entertainment. It is a fantastic book and a quick read. As you read it, though, take Ms. Benaron’s book as a treatise on and reminder of the dangers and the wrongfulness of bigotry, genocide, racism, sexism and every other inhumane thing that we, as human beings, do to one another everyday.