Book Review: Running the Rift

This week’s book review was contributed by Deborah Clearman, whose novel, Todos Santos, came out in 2010 from Black Lawrence Press. She is Program Director of NY Writers Coalition and leads creative writing workshops for women in jail on Rikers Island.

If, despite good intentions,  you’ve always had trouble telling the Tutsis (tall, skinny, herders of cattle and goats) from the Hutus (short, broad, growers of crops), and then separating those from the Watusi,  then Naomi Benaron‘s debut, Running the Rift (Algonquin, 2012), is for you. Winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize, the novel is set before, during, and after the Rwandan genocide of 1994. In it, you’ll follow the horrendous story through the eyes of Jean Patrick Nkuba, a young Tutsi with a talent for running and Olympic ambitions who find himself racing for more than gold medals.

We meet a nine-year-old Jean Patrick in 1984 on the day that his father, a local schoolmaster, is killed in a car crash. He and his mother, brothers, and sisters are taken in by his uncle, a fisherman living in the countryside overlooking Lake Kivu, and are nurtured by a loving extended family. Carrying out their father’s legacy to study hard and place first on their exams, Jean Patrick and his older brother Roger win scholarships to secondary school, where Jean Patrick’s gift for running comes to the attention of Coach, who takes him under his wing and begins training him to become a track star.

All goes well despite growing signs of civil war, and Jean Patrick gains national attention for his speed. He enters university, protected from anti-Tutsi violence by Coach, and falls in love with a beautiful second-year journalism student, whose family, although Hutu, are government dissidents.

Further unrest ensues, as rebel Tutsi fighters invade the North, and military checkpoints are seemingly everywhere. The Hutu president placates Western powers and UN peacekeepers with so-called peace talks with the Tutsis, but Rwandans are in a state of denial.  Meanwhile in the forests, extremists train a secret militia to carry out a well-planned mission to exterminate all Tutsi. In April of 1994, the Hutu president’s plane is shot down, and the bloodbath begins. At first, Jean Patrick only witnesses all this on TV and the radio, as the university town of Butare is an island of calm. But soon violence arrives shoreside, the West stands by and does nothing, and Jean Patrick begins to run for his life.

Naomi Benaron is a recent PEN/Bellwether Prize winner for fiction that addresses social change.

Running the Rift is a compelling read but not a great work of literature. The good characters (and there are many of them) are too good. Coach, Benaron’s one attempt at a nuanced character, offers a fairly stereotypical brand of tough love mixed with military shadiness. The one American, a geology professor named Jonathan who drops into the tale fortuitously and helps Jean Patrick resettle in the United States, is a goofy type who points up how clueless foreigners are about Africa. That said, it’s well worth reading. Benaron’s descriptions of the flora, fauna, landscape, and weather of Rwanda are lush and evocative, and her knowledge of the history and culture is extensive. She brings personal experience as a former seismologist / geologist and marathon runner to add authenticity. Her knowledge and love of the scientific method and athletic training inform the novel, and her portrayal of how unspeakable events can creep up on a society is all too convincing.

As for that dance from the early 60s, the Watusi? It has nothing to do with Rwanda except the name.