Customer Reviews: Running the Rift
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Running the Rift begins in Rwanda in 1994 and takes the reader through 1998. It is the story of the horrific genocide that devastated the country and pitted neighbor against neighbor. It is also the story of individuals - their dreams, hopes and wreckage.

When the Belgians occupied Rwanda, they classified the people who spoke one language and shared one culture into two separate groups - the Hutus and the Tutsis. They did this by observing the physical characteristics of the people. The Tutsis tended to be thinner and lankier with smaller noses. The Hutus tended to be more muscular and had a stronger, stockier appearance. After these two groups were named, the balance of power shifted repeatedly between them. Sometimes the Tutsis held power and at other times the Hutus did.

At the time that this novel opens, the Hutus are gaining power and want to eradicate the Tutsis who they call `cockroaches' or `dog eaters'. The bloodshed is horrific and no one in this country is spared the death of loved ones or family. President Habyarimana has just seized power and states that he will make the country whole again. However, his words are empty. He is surrounded by thugs who support the genocide. He rules with empty promises. The United Nations have some troops in Rwanda but they are ineffective. The western countries seem not to care what is happening here and do not intervene to put a stop to the bloodshed.

The main protagonist in this novel is a young man named Jean Patrick, a focused and determined student and runner. Despite being a Tutsi, he has the top grades in his class and is accepted into a private boarding school. Jean Patrick is such a good runner that he hopes to make the Olympic team. It looks promising for him. Habyarimana holds him up as a symbol of the unity of Rwanda despite the fact that no unity exists.

Jean Patrick has a grueling schedule of work-outs and is training for the 800 meter event. His coach, Rutembeza, is a man who is difficult to read. He appears to support Jean Patrick and love him like a son but one gets the sense that there is something dark and hidden in his nature. It is he who is responsible for Jean Patrick's future. He secures a Hutu identity card for Jean Patrick so that he can pass himself off as Hutu at security checkpoints.

Once high school is over, Jean Patrick goes off to college in Butare. It is there that he first meets Bea, the love of his life. He becomes close to her family. Bea's father, Niyonzima is an esteemed journalist who has spent several years in jail in the past for writing articles that were deemed insubordinate. His wife Ineza is an artist. They look upon Jean Patrick as a son.

The novel is both historical and personal. The reader is taken through the genocide of a country while sharing the lives of Jean Patrick, Bea and their families. The genocide is viewed through their eyes and how it affects their lives.

The novel has won Barbara Kingsolver's Belwether prize for fiction, a prize that supports fiction that advocates social change. This book is a perfect example of that combination.
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Jean-Patrick Nkuba is a Tutsi boy growing up in rural Rwanda. He is a bright student and a gifted runner, fast enough to potentially qualify for the Olympics. He was named after an uncle who was killed in a 1973 massacre of the Tutsi people, but such violence between the Hutu and Tutsi peoples now seems long in the past.

The story takes place between 1984 and 1998. Over the years the tension gradually builds between the two groups as the Tutsi people become increasingly harrassed and the media inflames racial divisions. Jean-Patrick's brother joins the RPF, a Tutsi rebel group, but Jean-Patrick heads to university and trains to be an Olympic runner. He befriends an American geology professor and falls in love with a Hutu girl. Sporadically violence against Tutsis erupts, but Jean-Patrick chooses to believe that his high profile running talent (and his well connected coach) will protect him from persecution. Meanwhile we - the reader - have a sense of dread from the outset that grows ever stronger.

This book pulled me in immediately. The sense of place is palpable. You can almost feel, smell and taste Rwanda as you read it. While it is fiction, it feels so real that I found it hard to believe that this wasn't a true story and that Benaron isn't Rwandan (she's not). It takes you inside Jean-Patrick's head and you can understand why he ignores so many warning signs and warnings from friends about the tensions that are building. It's so much easier to stick to the beliefs that you were raised with, even when the evidence against them is so overwhelming. When the genocide comes, some Hutus turn on their friends and lovers, but others will risk and even sacrifice their own lives to save their countrymen.

While this story is set against the build up to the genocide in Rwanda, it's very much the story of an individual rather than the conflict itself. Parts are very difficult to read, but there is a sense of hope as well. It's a very powerful story, engrossing to read and hard to forget.
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on January 16, 2012
Although this story takes place amidst the Hutu/Tutsi conflict, the underlying question of how one retains humanity in the face of horrific acts of hatred is a universal challenge. The incredible sense of place and time portrayed by Benaron intriguingly does not leave the reader with the comfortable excuse "that was another time, another place" but instead leaves one with the sense this could happen any time, any place. The underlying best and worst of human nature is what she really leads us to consider.
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VINE VOICEon February 4, 2012
Others have outlined the plot of this book. As someone who knew nothing about Rwanda except for the movie "Hotel Rwanda", I appreciated the rich context this work of fiction gave to what life was life before, during and after the unimaginable things that happened in Rwanda.

I was so taken with the main character, Jean Patrick, and the juxtaposition with the character Jonathan, the American professor, who befriends him. This was a book I couldn't put down and I'm so grateful for the lesson it taught about humanity, love and hate, and specifically about the beauty and the horror of Rwanda. I honestly could not put this book down.

This book makes me want to read everything else Ms. Benaron writes from now on, because she has a gift for storytelling and a passion for her subject that makes everything she writes come to life. I would recommend this novel to anybody who appreciates beautiful writing. And you just might learn a ton about Rwanda too.
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on February 6, 2012
What a beautifully told novel...loved the language, poetry of verse and unforgetable characters. I highly recommend this book. It is a fast paced and engrossing read.
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on May 14, 2012
After reading "Left to Tell" and hearing the author speak and seeing the movie "Hotel Rwanda" I wasn't sure I was "up" for another story of the Rwanda Genocide. I decided to give the book a try and didn't put it down until I finished the last page. I was charmed by the main character, Jean Patrick, and sucked into the coming-of-age story of family, love, loyalty, running and education.
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on January 26, 2014
I suppose I should clarify up front, I read a lot of depressing books. Or what others might think of as depressing given their subject matter. For the most part, however, they do not make me overly sad in reality while reading or once I have finished. I empathize with the characters as the plot moves forward, but rarely am I left depressed about events that took place.

Having issued that disclaimer, I had been reading articles on Buzzfeed books (or actually, since it's Buzzfeed, let's be honest and say I was more just looking at pictures) and came across one suggesting a few more serious reads for Christmas vacation. Naturally, that was right up my alley (beach books and I are not best buds). On that list were a few books on the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. I chose the first one, which was Running The Rift.

Benaron's book concerns a young man named Jean Patrick (I did not like his name so I just kept calling him Jean Pierre in my head - thought it rolled off the tongue better) who grew up in Rwanda amidst conflict between the Tutsi and the Hutu. For those who do not know much about this conflict, it centers around physical differences of people in this part of East Africa. Essentially, and this is admittedly simplistic, the Tutsi are taller, lighter skinned, and leaner, while the Hutu are darker, stockier, and stronger. In Rwanda around the time of the genocide, the Tutsi made up a smaller proportion of the people, but the majority of the government. In neighboring Burundi, the Tutsi were the majority and the Hutu were the minority.

Jean Patrick and his family are Tutsi and therefore are persecuted. Each person was assigned a card delineating what "ethnicity" they are, because it often wasn't clear outright. I found this aspect of the story quite interesting with the Hutus often having to demand whether or not someone they had stopped was indeed Tutsi. Jean Patrick is a runner, who trains to be in the Olympics for Rwanda. Much of the book concerns his races, his training, and his status as a Tutsi runner (and whether or not this makes him ineligible to represent his country). We see Jean Patrick's fight for survival, while also watching him grow up, and find love and friendship.

I learned quite a bit about the conflict and about Africa from this novel, which was awarded the Bellwether Prize for Fiction, which honors "socially engaged" literature. I enjoyed my reading of the novel on the whole but there were a few parts that really bothered me. Firstly, I think this novel writes about a runner from the perspective of a non-runner. Obviously I do not know how Ms. Benaron spends her time; however, I think that the way she writes Jean Patrick feeling when he runs or trains is the perspective of someone who thinks this is how it would feel. Quite frankly, it did not feel completely believable. Secondly, there were two Americans in the story who Jean Patrick becomes friends with, and the characterization of these two was somewhat bothersome and stereotypical. Both were somewhat blundering, clueless as to their surroundings, and loud.

Lastly, and please note, <SPOILERS AHEAD>, Jean Patrick's entire family (not only nuclear, extended, and in-laws as well) is killed off about 300 pages in. Until that point, the reader had been told about 10-12 characters that were executed in just a few pages. It felt like such a waste. Perhaps that was the intention, given that approximately 20% of Rwanda's population was slaughtered in a three month period in reality. However, Jean Patrick's reaction was seemingly part shock and then he resolved to move on. The reaction did not seem genuine. I mean, understanding that that is the only way for him survive and the story to move forward, if you're entire family was killed, would you just be able to move on and continue fighting for your original goal?

The book is a great primer and introduction to what occurred in Rwanda in the 90s. It made me want to read further on the conflict, and get to know more / hear more stories. It was lacking in believably at times and some of the characters were too flat, but this was not a deal breaker. I don't think this would top my list of great serious reads for the holidays though, sorry Buzzfeed.
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on September 11, 2012
Benaron has created a rare and important novel in Running the Rift, one that does what the best novels should in terms of making the character feel like a member of your family, but by setting this tender portrait of the young runner Jean Patrick against the dark realities of the Rwandan genocide, the novel does what few nonfiction books on the topic can do: deliver the human dimension behind the faceless statistics. Psychological fiction is made to cross the gulfs of scale and trauma, and in Benaron's hands, you'll feel more immediacy to genocide than your comfortable with, and here is where the reader's duty to be enlightened comes into play. It all works because the characters are complex and nuanced--I was gripped by every appearance of the the sinister yet fatherly coach Rutembeza, for example--and because the book is so fully researched in every dimension. A very compelling read.
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"Even when I remember I am terrified,
And trembling takes hold of my flesh." -- Job 21:6 (NKJV)

To those who live in countries untouched by recent genocide, such events are all but inexplicable. Yet the hatred and division that contribute to genocide are apparent well in advance. From a book like Running the Rift, that draws so well on actual events in constructing a fictional life, much can be learned for what to look for in avoiding future awful events like this one.

While you may not think that a book about leading up to and experiencing mass murder could be beautiful, Naomi Benaron has transcended her subject matter to uplift the human spirit by describing her heroes and heroines. Even the villains will teach you valuable things about what it means to be human and to have compassion for others.

If you admire books that capture a whole history of a major event in one fictional narrative, you won't want to miss this book. It's remarkable!

So what's it all about?

Jean Patrick Nkuba was born with a special gift for running that led to him being groomed to compete internationally for Rwanda. In being so favored, life wasn't all sweetness and light. As an obvious member of the Tutsi (as defined by some physiological characteristics) group in Rwanda, he has difficult decisions to make about being loyal to his family, to others like himself, and to his nation at a time when many despised those like him. As a result, he straddles the Hutu and Tutsi worlds in a way that's wonderful for telling the story of the conflict between those who were identified with one group or the other at the time of the genocide.

In the course of the story, you'll also learn a lot about the day-to-day life of many people in Rwanda at the time, the educational system, politics, and the nation's social fabric.

One of the story's characters is also a well-meaning American, so you'll also get the perspective of those who weren't Rwandans but who were there.

Experiences like this one in Rwanda can all too easily be lost from public consciousness. That would be an even greater tragedy than what happened in Rwanda.

Please read this wonderful book and encourage others to do the same.

As a personal commitment to keeping Rwanda in my memory, I've been sponsoring a young orphan there through Compassion International. Perhaps you would like to do something for the people there as well.
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on November 27, 2013
There are two things about Running the Rift that drew me to it like a magnet. It is a coming of age book which I dearly love reading and it is set in a country, which was about to implode, Rwanda in this instance. The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra were both highly rated by me. While I don't see Naomi Benaron writing and execution of the plot on the level of either Johnson's or Marra's, it is a book worthy of a 5 star rating and deserving of the Bellwether Prize for Fiction.

Tensions between Rwanda's Hutu and Tutsi people are escalating during young Jean Patrick Nkuba's life. Jean Patrick is a serious young man who hopes use his skill as a runner to protect himself and his family. Benaron deftly shows how the tensions within the country escalate and its effect on the daily life of the people of the country. The reader cannot help but feel fearful for Jean Patrick and his family.

This was a book which I couldn't put down. I really enjoyed the main character and look forward to reading more by Naomi Benaron.

I recommend this book with the warning that there are unsettling aspects in it and parts where a strong stomach is necessary.
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