I promise you that I never would have picked up Naomi Benaron’s book “Running the Rift” if I had seen it in a bookstore. I’m certain it wouldn’t be in my “Recommended For You” section on Amazon. And I doubt many of my friends would have recommended it to me. So, I’m grateful to Powell’s “Indiespensable,” a fantastic program that sends subscribers a new, independently published book about every six weeks. The books are usually signed and come in a package full of other surprises and goodies. One of the reasons we read is because a book can take us on incredible journeys. At times beautifully and at times painfully, “Running the Rift” takes us on a journey to Rwanda, before, during and after the awful genocide in the nineties.
The main character is a young man named Nkuba Jean Patrick. We meet him in his adolescence, in the late eighties, as the country veers toward its tragedy. Jean Patrick is from a small fishing village—Cyangugu—and he’s naïve about the world he inhabits. He’s also fast and quickly becomes the nation’s top prospect for the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996. Jean Patrick is a Tutsi in a country dominated by Hutus, and as he grows older, his world gets more dangerous.
What impressed me most about Benaron’s story is that it is a fiction story that manages to enlighten readers about a true event. The education is subtle—most of the novel is about Jean Patrick and the relationships he forms with his brother, his coach, his uncle, his girlfriend, his teacher, and his country. But you could read this book knowing next to nothing about what happened in Rwanda and come away with a much better understanding.
Jean Patrick is a blank slate at the beginning of the novel. All he knew was his fishing world. But over time, through the influence of those noted above, he gains a deeper, more fluent understanding of Rwanda. He is forced to stand up and make difficult decisions as an adult but Benaron doesn’t shove this transformation in your face. In contrast to his speed on the track, Jean Patrick’s maturation is slow and complex.
In an interview, Benaron cited her fondness for Jean Patrick’s love interest as a character. Bea is unique—she has an independent streak, but Benaron wisely resists the temptation to overplay it. She’s the last piece of the puzzle for Jean Patrick. It is through her that he ultimately gains his perspective.
The title of the book is elegant. As it was explained to me recently, the Rift is a valley in Central Africa. You can Google it for more information. Benaron’s title is an obvious metaphor—an allusion to the Rift Valley, but also a nod to the rift that divided Rwanda (to say nothing of the various rifts in Jean Patrick and his family’s life). Benaron goes deeper with the climate and landscape of Rwanda—she eloquently describes the country. I was struck by how different it is from the stereotypical desert we think of. And by making Jean Patrick a geology student, she ultimately gives him an understanding that though the world changes slowly over centuries, the rocks that we rest upon are lasting, no matter what happens above. Again, the author is subtle with this parallel, and like with classical music, it’s the subtleties that show true talent.
Mostly this novel made me embarrassed of my ignorance of global affairs. That something so horrible could happen to so many hundreds of thousands of individuals—with such limited global outcry—is frightening to me. I bear responsibility for this, and so does society as a whole. We can say the world is flat all we want, but the truth is we end up outraged by the latest stupid political offense or celebrity arrest and not by the tragedies that happen a world away. In a strange parallel for this reader,the Kony video appeared while I read this book. Like “Running the Rift,” the Kony video educated a broader audience about something important.
This novel started slow for me—I wasn’t sure what I was getting into and I wasn’t sure I liked it. It rallies, though, as I better understood what happened in Rwanda in the 90s and how it influenced each of these characters. Ultimately, Benaron delivers a powerful novel that educates and, in a bittersweet way, entertains at the same time. Wonderful characters and a warm story set during a murderous genocide. Not an easy task.
We’ve got an obligation to the rest of the world to pay attention, and that’s what Benaron is telling us in “Running the Rift.” She won the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction with this book—it is an award sponsored by Barbara Kingsolver. Through literature, we can make others more socially engaged, and this is a textbook example of how to do it.
Thanks for reading.