The complexities and tragedies of Rwanda and the Tutsi-Hutu tensions are intricately and beautifully captured in Naomi Benaron’s emotionally stirring debut, Running the Rift. Jean Patrick Nkuba is a young Tutsi boy who loves his family, excelling at his studies and running with his brother. A school visit from an award-winning runner awakens Olympic dreams in Jean-Patrick, but his world begins to change in frightening ways after his father’s sudden death. Adding to his unease is the family’s move to live with his maternal uncle, which is hastened in the wake of frightening harassment, which raises the specter of past violence, which becomes all too common in Jean Patrick’s everyday life.
Running the Rift is an amazing book, carefully nuanced and paced in a way that perfectly examines the way the ordinary can coexist with unspeakable horror and violence. Benaron convey the joy, frailty and contradictions which are the handmaidens of human existence, no matter the cataclysms that life offers up. Jean Patrick has the potential to be an extremely frustrating character, endowed as he is with a preternatural innocence that allows him to believe unfailingly in his father’s dream of a united Rwanda, in spite of his brother’s wise insight, and what he sees around him. Instead he becomes a stand in for the reader’s own vain hopes that the history that has been so clearly written can be avoided.
The writing of the characters, land, food, culture, and the treatment of running, is gorgeous, honest and oddly enough, hopeful. Benaron peoples her book with fascinating and strong multi-faceted characters who are doing their best to live according to their beliefs, which is of course a big part of the tragedy. Tutsi and Hutus are neighbors and employees, teachers and students, lovers and family. The lines drawn and decisions made as they betray and save each other will both break your heart and restore your belief in humanity. Highly recommended.