Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Rwandan Genocide in novel form

The Bellwether Prize is awarded biennially to the author of a previously unpublished novel that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships. I first became aware of the prize when I stumbled upon the 2006 winner, Hilary Jordan’s Mudbound which tells the story of two families– one white and one black – in rural, racist Mississippi just after the end of WWII. I highly recommend Mudbound to you. When I saw a new novel recently with the Bellwether Prize sticker on its cover, I bought the book without a moment’s hesitation because of my experience with Mudbound. I was not disappointed.

The most recent winner of the Bellwether Prize is Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron (Algonquin Books, 2012). The setting of this story is Rwanda from 1984 until 1998. The main character is Jean Patrick Nkuba, a Tutsi who dreams of being the first Rwandan to win an Olympic track medal. As you might guess, Jean Patrick must use his ability as a runner to save his own life once the genocide begins. Benaron begins her tale while Jean Patrick is a young schoolboy. She pulls the reader into the beauty of the Rwandan hills; the richness of the culture – the music, the folk wisdom, the food; and the complexity of the people and their politics. Benaron helped me to understand that the Rwandan genocide was much more complicated than Hutu versus Tutsi, and it did not just erupt suddenly in 1994. The characters in the novel are complex, as real people are; even minor characters are more fully developed than is typical.

Although she writes about genocide, Benaron has crafted a love story. The novel is suffused with Jean Patrick’s love for his family and friends, his love for Rwanda, and his love for Bea. The novel has many deaths, but it is very much about life and what makes it worth living. I encourage you to read it!

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