'Running the Rift' Hurdles Olympic Training and the Rwandan Genocide

The Bellwether prize hasn't been in existence for very long—just over a decade—but it's become a big deal. Awarded biennially by Barbara Kingsolver with her own money, the $25,000 award for a novel that tackles social justice helped turn its last two winners, Hillary Jordan's Mudbound and Heidi W. Durrow's The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, into indie best-sellers.

Now arrives Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron (Algonquin Books), a coming-of-age tale set on the cusp of the Rwandan civil war of the 1990s. Like the previous two Bellwether winners, Running the Rift is all about racism and ethnic identity, but the world it describes is very far away from Mississippi and Portland, the settings of the past two winners.

Benaron's book starts in 1984, when young Jean Patrick Nkuba must face the death of his schoolteacher father, who dies unexpectedly in a car crash. The family soon is forced to leave the housing provided by the school and move in with relatives in a rural fishing village, but not before rocks are thrown through their window by teenage thugs yelling, "Tutsi snakes!"

You see, Jean Patrick and his family are Tutsi. The government in charge of Rwanda is Hutu. In case you never paid attention back in the 1990s, the Hutu dislike the Tutsi, who used to be in power. Bad things are coming, but Jean Patrick doesn't care. He just wants to run.

And boy, does he run. Jean Patrick is a gifted runner, and his Hutu coach decides he is best suited to race the 800-meter run, a middle-distance race, which spawns any number of metaphors throughout the book. When you learn Jean Patrick is a runner, you know at some point he will be running away from the bad guys.

Metaphorically, Jean Patrick is also always running away from the impending disaster staring him in the face—civil war is erupting around him, but he's more focused on training for the Olympics. His athleticism allows him to enjoy a privileged status and avoid most of the repression the Tutsi increasingly encounter, so Jean Patrick buries his face in the wind as he races around Butare.

There is a lot about running and training in this book, so much so that I thought I was rereading The Art of Fielding at times. (Is extreme athletic training a new literary trope?) There is also a would-be pivotal love story that unfortunately seems more like a distraction than a necessary plot device, especially as the novel ends. But it is to Benaron's credit that a novel about such a grim and heartrending subject can be so engrossing—I read the book virtually in one sitting.

Running the Rift is a much better novel than The Help, but it suffers from the same problematic issue—can an American white woman write authentically and realistically about the issues faced by blacks? Can someone who lives a life of comparable privilege really get at the heart of something so horrible, so unimaginable as genocide?

I don't pretend to have the answer to this question, but I also can't pretend this book doesn't raise it. Running the Rift is well written and provides a sweeping overview of a horrific segment of recent history without watering it down—when the genocide comes, it is truly awful. This is not a Holocaust novel where the action happens off stage. But one can't help but wonder whether book clubs across the country would be better served by reading a book written by someone who lived through it.

Of course, would book clubs across the country pick up a novel by an African writer, or even a nonfiction account of the Rwandan genocide, like Philip Gourevitch's excellent We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families? Maybe fiction is the only way to begin to comprehend something as unspeakable as the murder of 800,000 people, most killed for no reason other than their ethnic background.

The danger of Running the Rift, and perhaps most fiction that confronts issues of social justice, is that it wraps it up too neatly. The novel may make something incomprehensible partially understandable, but does genocide need to made easily digestible? Shouldn't it remain anything but neat and pat?

I don't know. I can't know. But I do know that the horrors of Rwanda in 1994 deserve something else. Running the Rift is a powerful book, don't get me wrong, and if it gets Americans to read about African history then it will be a good thing. But shouldn't we want more?