Sunday, March 11, 2012

Running the Rift

Do you ever think about what causes you to choose one book over another?  What are the key factors that sell a book to you? The publisher? (Algonguin in this case) Cover art? Blurbs? Reviews? Gossip? Radio interview? TV appearance? Librarians are attuned to all of the above but I wonder what it takes for the rest of you.

Naomi Benaron's novel, Running the Rift, was blurbed by Barbara Kingsolver. She had me at "hello!" On top of that, she was awarded the Bellweather Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. I suppose that could be a turn off for some, you may not want lessons with your leisure reading, but for me "read around the world" is not just the name of a blog. It's a goal.

A little historical background may be necessary for those who aren't familiar with the Rwandan genocide between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes. You may not have read about it but you've likely seen the devastating film, Hotel Rwanda, in which Don Cheadle represents an African version of Schindler, saving thousands of Tutsi refugees by providing shelter in the famous Hotel des Mille Collines, where as a Hutu he is a respected manager.

It's likely an unfathomable situation for us Americans to get out heads around yet this transpired less than twenty years ago. Author Benaron pens an exquisitely slow-building, thoughtful. coming of age/romance story to awaken readers' understanding of  the horrors of the genocide through its effect on a few wonderfully drawn characters.

There's a heartbreaking song in South Pacific about prejudice, that it isn't natural to the human species (we hope) but has to be carefully taught through words and action. Put children of various tribes, cultures, colors, together in a playground and they'll happily cavort. Twenty years later they may take up arms against each other.

John Patrick Nkuba is a young Tutsi man with an enormous talent. Son of a school teacher, unafraid of study, he is identified as a potential Olympic long distance runner by a Hutu coach who happens to see him on the field one day. Towards that end, Olympic gold for Rwanda, JP trains under his coach's demanding eye, competing in events throughout Africa.

 But eventually, border crossings, necessary for JP to compete in meets in other countries, become more fraught with tension as the Hutus begin to blame their Tutsi brothers for all the ills of poverty and deprivation they face in Africa. Tragically, they seem incapable of realizing that foreign countries, in this case Belgium, are the instigators. After all, can a house divided against itself stand?

JP acquires a Hutu identity badge, an irony of course, as it indicates that the guards can't even recognize the differences among their own people. Apolitical, JP  feels only a twinge of guilt at being able to bridge both worlds, until he meets and falls in love with Bea, a Hutu woman, who's an involved, political firebrand with a passion for her country, her family, and eventually for John Patrick.

As the war against the Tutsi escalates, friends turn on friends, loyalties become strained, and John Patrick has to grow up fast, choosing between his future as an Olympic star from Rwanda, his family, his love for Bea, and his life. Can one even sustain a relationship in a nation so fraught with rage? Running the Rift is another beautiful example of a novel that can teach us more about history than the history books can even begin to do.

An aside, company coming today and a new book by Paul Theroux to be reviewed for Library Journal. I may be incommunicado for a while but my mind is always writing. Next week, thoughts of the 13th annual Southwest Florida Reading Festival and the five year anniversary of this blog! Where does the time go?

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