Naomi Benaron's Running the Rift opens in the mid-'80s, taking the reader through the decade leading up to the 1994 Rwandan genocide. We meet the protagonist, Jean Patrick Nkuba, as a school-age Tutsi-born Rwandan, and follow him as his dreams of becoming an Olympic runner inch closer to reality, and then slip further away as the Hutu-Tutsi conflicts come to a head.
When political tensions increase and violence turns from a threat to a reality, Jean Patrick must make decisions that will have life-changing consequences. Relationships that were based on common interests are torn apart and replaced by a line of demarcation based on ethnicity. He feels guilty about following his long-held heart's desire and potentially turning his back on obligations to his peers. Jean Patrick observes that although [some friends] chose to fight with bullets … he had chosen to fight with his legs. Each time he won, he carried all Tutsi with him.
Running the Rift is literary fiction at its finest; it is a thoughtful and thought-provoking look at a historical time, written in beautiful prose that reflects the natural Rwandan landscape as seen through the eyes of Jean Patrick. Scenes of violence are disturbing, but not gratuitous – Benaron brings us to the heart of the conflict through the broken hearts of the protagonist and his family and friends, easing the reader into confronting a very uncomfortable truth about race relations.
After reading and discussing Running the Rift, many readers will find themselves searching for more information about the Rwandan conflicts. Author Naomi Benaron lists resources in the Acknowledgments to her novel, with other suggestions in a comment on She Is Too Fond of Books.
The novel was awarded the 2010 Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction (recently re-named the PEN/Bellwether Prize), established by author Barbara Kingsolver to "promote fiction that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships."
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