Novel details the pain of hatred in Rwanda

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 9, 2012

“Running the Rift,” by Naomi Benaron. Algonquin Books. 360 pp. $24.95.
By Elizabeth Cook
SALISBURY — Genocide is ugly, and none uglier than the hatred that ravaged the East African nation of Rwanda in 1994. With machetes and rifles, neighbor turned against neighbor as ethnic rivalry between the minority Tutsi and majority Hutu ignited. All told, nearly a million people were massacred.
It takes an adept writer to find beauty in such horrible chaos, and Naomi Benaron proves in “Running the Rift” (Algonquin Books) that she is one of them.
Though Benaron was nowhere near Rwanda during the bloodshed, she fell in love with the country and the people during a visit in 2002. Since then she has worked extensively with genocide survivor groups and has become an advocate for African refugees.
Benaron combines that knowledge of and empathy for the people of Rwanda with her own love of running to create her main character, aspiring Olympic runner Jean Patrick.
Jean Patrick is a tall, lean young man with a long face — characteristic of the Tutsi people whom Hutus are hunting down and hacking to pieces.
Becoming a famous athlete gives him different status, as well as hope that he might help pull his country together. But events soon overtake even the quick Jean Patrick, and soon he and his family are running for their lives.
This is a story of perseverance, friendship and forgiveness, one that demonstrates yet again that love can blossom in any surroundings — perhaps most of all when two people feel frightened for their lives.
This good and noble story has captured the PEN/ Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, founded by Barbara Kingsolver. Previous winners include Hillary Jordan’s “Mudbound” and Heidi W. Durrow’s “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky,” both also published by Algonquin.
But it is slow going in parts, especially contrasted to some of the compelling first-person accounts that have come out of Rwanda, such as Immaculée Iligagiza’s “Left to Tell,” published in 2007. Iligagiza survived the slaughter by hiding silently in a small bathroom with seven other women for 91 days with little food and seemingly less hope. Through deep, intense prayer, Immaculée created a sanctuary for her spirit and a powerful connection to God that is breath-taking.
After devouring “Left to Tell” in one sitting, this reader was well prepared to understand the Tutsi and Hutu tensions of “Running the Rift,” but not for the gradual way in which the story unfolds.
It starts vividly enough. Jean Patrick’s peaceful world is upended when his father, a scholar, dies in an automobile accident. Soon after, shouts of “Tutsi!” and a rock crashing through his home’s window convince his mother to move the family to live with her brother, a poor fisherman. And so the uprooting begins.
A prediction from an older athlete who visits Jean Patrick’s school during more peaceful days eventually takes on new meaning. “Someday,” the older runner says, “you will need to run as much as you need to breathe.”
The story bogs down during Jean Patrick’s training for the Olympics — particularly for a reader who is not a runner — then sprints forward after the Hutu president is assassinated and Hutu anger explodes.
“What good was a wish? In Rwanda a wish was an overturned bowl that nothing could right or fill as long as the war dragged on.”
Benaron creates memorable characters. The uneducated uncle proves to have a wise heart. The dedicated coach has a disloyal side — something that comes as only a slight surprise.
And Jean Patrick grows from naive teen to determined adult, a man who holds on to hope in one of human history’s darkest moments.