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Informative Yet Irksome Novel
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.