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Running the Rift Hardcover – January 3, 2012
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, January 2012: No wonder Barbara Kingsolver awarded her 2010 Bellwether Prize, given biennially to an unpublished novel that confronts social issues, to Naomi Benaron's Running the Rift. In her coming-of-age story of young Tutsi Jean Patrick Nkuba, whose extraordinary gift for distance running lands him on the path to become his country's first medalist in track, one of history's most inconceivable chapters--the Rwandan genocide--becomes intensely personal. Out of a childhood marked by loss and overshadowed by mounting Hutu-Tutsi tensions, Jean Patrick draws the strength for grueling Olympic training and the courage to run his life's most crucial race--to save himself and his family. A vividly told tale with a memorable champion at its heart. --Mari Malcolm
Kansas City Star Top 100 Books of 2012
Seattle Times’ 25 Best Books of 2012 list
BookBrowse’s Favorite Books for 2012
"In Naomi Benaron's Running the Rift, a novel full of unspeakable strife but also joy, humor, and love, "hope always [chases] close on the heels of despair," thanks to a writer who knows when to keep a steady pace and when to explode into an all-out sprint." ―O, The Oprah Magazine
"Running the Rift encourages us to see the world as a whole, despite the simmering divisions that constantly threaten to erupt. The genocide scars Jean Patrick and scuttles his personal Olympic dream. But other seemingly impossible dreams are realized in this accomplished, comprehending and generous first novel." ―Kansas City Star
“Running the Rift does not spare readers the horrors of the violence in Rwanda, but never loses sight of the beauty―the love and, yes, the hope―that persists even amid such a desperate situation." ―The Wichita Eagle
“This well written and well researched novel is an impressive debut.”―The Seattle Times
"An auspicious debut . . . Having worked extensively with genocide survivor groups in Rwanda, Benaron clearly acquired a very lucid sense of her characters' lives and of the horrors they endured. Her story tells, with compelling clarity, of Rwandan Tutsi youth, Jean Patrick Nkuba--who dreams of becoming Rwanda's first Olympic medalist. It's a dream he must postpone for more than a decade as the internecine savagery, Hutu vs. Tutsi, slaughters millions and derails the lives of countless others. While it would be counterintuitive to pronounce this a winning, feel-good story, there is something to be said for hope restored. And Naomi Benaron's characters say it well."―The Daily Beast
"This debut novel set against the backdrop of Rwanda's ethnic conflict is a powerful coming-of-age story that highlights the best and worst of human nature."―Christian Science Monitor
"Benaron's focus on this one young man is part of the book's brilliance . . . Benaron writes beautifully about the pain and exhilaration of being an Olympic-level runner (she's a triathlete) . . . It's unbearable, Benaron's genius is that we read on despite it." ―BookPage
"This debut novel won the Bellwether Prize, created and funded by author Barbara Kingsolver to promote fiction that addresses issues of social justice. A more fitting choice would be hard to find." ―Shelf Awareness
“In a finely crafted story of dreams, illusions, hard reality, and reaching the other side of fear, Benaron has bestowed upon the world a story that illuminates events on a national scale by showing their effects at the personal level.”―ForeWord Reviews
"Benaron accomplishes the improbable feat of wringing genuine loveliness from unspeakable horror . . . It is a testament to Benaron's skill that a novel about genocide . . . conveys so profoundly the joys of family, friendship, and community." ―Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Awarded the prestigious Bellwether Prize for its treatment of compelling social issues, Benaron’s first novel is a gripping, frequently distressing portrait of destruction and ultimate redemption... Benaron sheds a crystalline beacon on an alarming episode in global history, and her charismatic protagonist leaves an indelible impression.”―Booklist
"First novelist Benaron, who has actively worked with refugee groups, won the 2010 Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction for this unflinching and beautifully crafted account of a people and their survival. In addition, she compellingly details the growth and rigorous training of a young athlete. . . Highly recommended; readers who loved Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner will appreciate."―Library Journal, starred review
"The politics will be familiar to those who have followed Africa’s crises (or seen Hotel Rwanda), but where Benaron shines is in her tender descriptions of Rwandan’s natural beauty and in her creation of Jean Patrick, a hero whose noble innocence and genuine human warmth are impossible not to love." ―Kirkus Reviews, starred review
—The Dallas Morning News
—Chicago Tribune, editor’s choice
—O: The Oprah Magazine
—The Christian Science Monitor
—Library Journal, starred review
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Recently listed as one of the top five novels that all runners should read by the Guardian, it works - just! - as a novel about running. Jean Patrick, a young Tutsi, grows into Rwanda's best hope for an Olympic medal in the 800 meters. For Jean Patrick, this is not a revelation, but the culmination of a dream that started in grade school when he raced his brother to the gates of Gihundwe. The hard work, more than a decade of it, comes later in the story, woven in seamlessly with the greater story of the country.
The story of Rwanda, in the lead-up to the dissolution of civilization, and into the aftermath, dominates the story. Benaron deftly builds the tension, first with a rock-throwing incident at Gihundwe, Jean Patrick's primary school, then in the streets. The sense of menace tracks the youth all the way to university. His saving grace, what keeps him safe, is his ability to run like the wind, to earn the nickname Mr. Olympics.
In the midst of that, Benaron presents all the beauty of Rwanda, in the sights, sounds, in the simple descriptions of the food. Her writing is elegant and clean, adding enough to bring you into Rwanda, to sit you at the table so you can listen to the babble of voices and taste the banana beer.
Benaron applies that same skill to the blackness without resorting to the melodramatic, letting the story follow the history with a sense of inevitableness that leaves the reader in fear for Jean Patrick and his love, Bea, as the tipping point to chaos approaches.
The author also leaves the reader angry, not just at the human cruelty, but at the cowardliness of the rest of the world who looked to Rwanda - and looked away again while the Tutsi were annihilated en masse and twenty percent of the Hutu, those sympathetic to national reconciliation, were murdered.
As I mentioned above, Running the Rift is just barely a novel of running. The running is well done, but it is the rest of the story, beyond the cleanliness of pain that is the 800 meters, that makes this into the powerful story that needs to be read.
Through Jean Patrick and his experiences we learn of the cultural and history of Rwanda and we see the ever present bias that pits one group of people against another — people who have been taught that despite their common language and culture — that they are different, and one is superior and the other is a threat. Jean Patrick sees his running as something that can represent all of Rwanda and he is encouraged by family and his coach to use that to his advantage, and to do whatever is necessary, even if it means denying his heritage. It is his girlfriend Bea, however, that pushes him to see more that is going on around him. She is Hutu, but her father is a journalist and willing to defy those in power to let the world know of what is happening in Rwanda.
What Jean Patrick tries to ignore, the audience sees and the story pushes us to what we know will be the genocide. A history we, especially American's, have often only have a vague sense of. The novel's impact is that it is small story - one boy from one family in one province of Rwanda - yet manages to show how the true horror of the Rwandan genocide was not that it was perpetrated by a government that sent troops to round up and kill or by an invading force, but by a minority of hardliners who convinced neighbors to turn on neighbors. Over the course of a few weeks, an estimated million Tutsi and Hutu's who aided them or were seen as sympathizers were murdered by fellow Rwandan's who used machete's, clubs and knives far more than guns and grenades or camps.
Benaron doesn't dwell on the violence, but paints enough detail to leave the reader with a sense of horror at what happened, and what the West didn't do. While 'fictional' violence doesn't tend to impact me on a personal level, knowing that what Benaron shows the audience is only a sliver of the real violence of those months, it is enough to leave me with bad dreams. At the end however, the audience is left knowing that while so few survived and lost everything, they yet somehow retain hope, even if that hope is slow in rising.
The title of Benaron's novel refers to the geological feature of the area (the tectonic rift formed by the violent upheaval of the earth's crust), but also calls to mind the attempt of Jean Patrick to live and navigate between worlds that have a history of violent collision. Science - physics and geological feature in the story and act as metaphors, as does the sport of running. In the notes, the author says that she was a serious runner, and it shows in the descriptions of runners, and racing.
I'll note here that, as a book written about such a complex situation by someone from outside of the culture, there has been some accusations of cultural appropriation. I think those are unfounded in this case (and perhaps leveled by individuals who haven't read it) because Benaron has done her homework - both learning the history of a nation and developing an understanding of a cultural that has seen tremendous upheaval and loss. He characters are never stereotypes and are complex individuals. I listened to parts of this on audiobook and it moves lyrically - she has spent extended time in Rwanda living with Rwandans and her love of them and the country shows in her writing. The audiobook gave me a sense of the language - its metaphors and rhythms, while her details gave me an sense of a culture I didn't know, and made me cheer for characters I knew in my heart were doomed.
This book is likely to stick with me for a long time - both negatively and positively. Benaron didn't write an unbelievable against the odds ending, and I am thankful for that, having read many articles and accounts of the Genocide, but it also wasn't a bleak ending. A powerful story that should be read by those who like their fiction with a social consciousness.