09 December 2011

Imprint Friday: Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron

Welcome to Imprint Friday and today's featured imprint: Algonquin Books. Stop by each week to be introduced to a must-read title from one of my favorite imprints. I know you'll be adding many of these books to your wish list.

Algonquin has a knack of spotting and nurturing authors who make a big splash in the ocean of books published each year. For the third time in a row, they are publishing the winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Fiction, an award given "to promote fiction that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships."

Naomi Benaron's Running the Rift begins in Rwanda just as the Hutu-Tutsi conflict is coming to a head. Here is the summary:

Running the Rift follows Jean Patrick Nkuba, a gifted Rwandan boy, from the day he knows that running will be his life to the moment he must run to save his life, a ten-year span in which his country is undone by the Hutu-Tutsi tensions. Born a Tutsi, he is thrust into a world where it’s impossible to stay apolitical—where the man who used to sell you gifts for your family now spews hatred, where the girl who flirted with you in the lunchroom refuses to look at you, where your Hutu coach is secretly training the very soldiers who will hunt down your family. Yet in an environment increasingly restrictive for the Tutsi, he holds fast to his dream of becoming Rwanda’s first Olympic medal contender in track, a feat he believes might deliver him and his people from this violence. When the killing begins, Jean Patrick is forced to flee, leaving behind the woman, the family, and the country he loves. Finding them again is the race of his life.
There is much that attracts me to Benaron's novel, including the setting, the characters, Jean Patrick's dreams, and the backdrop of war. I don't know as much about the Hutu-Tutsi conflict as I probably should, and I am particularly interested in how Benaron's personal experience with Rwandan refugees has informed her work.

In Running the Rift, the horrors and confusion of the genocide are brought down to the individual level through Jean Patrick, whose idealistic belief in equality is massacred right along with his fellow Tutsis. The young man has had one lifelong focus: winning an Olympic metal for his country. But now he must divert his energy to survival and the need to separate dreams and reality. From the beauty of the African wilderness to the terror of being stopped by authorities demanding papers, Jean Patrick's world is one of dichotomies. People are either Hutu or Tutsi, either friend or foe, and as the killing continues it becomes harder to tell the difference:
"You have to trust him," she said. . . .

Jean Patrick touched his cheek to hers before stepping out into the wet. Trust Coach? If Coach told him that tomorrow the sun would rise in the east, it seemed to Jean Patrick there was a fifty-fifty chance it would rise in the west. (p. 189)
Benaron has written a frank, graphic novel about a shameful moment of history. Read it, remember it, and try to capture a bit of Jean Patrick's early naivete:
Before his first day in primary school, Jean Patrick had not known what Tutsi meant. When the teacher said, "All Tutsi stand," Jean Patrick did not that he was to rise from his seat and be counted and say his name. Roger had to pull him up and explain. (pp. 12-13)
Here are some other opinions (click the links to read the full reviews):
  • Publishers Weekly (starred review): "This powerful novel recounts inhumanity on a scale scarcely imaginable, yet rebukes its nihilism, countering unforgivable violence with small mercies and unyielding hope."
  • Library Journal (starred review): The novel is an "unflinching and beautifully crafted account of a people and their survival."
In the wake of the Bellwether announcement, Benaron has granted a number of interviews—for example, with Publishers Weekly and the UCLA Extension Writers' Program—in which she discusses what it was like for her to visit Rwanda as well as her experiences as a triathlete. Visit Naomi Benaron's website for more about her work. On her site, you'll also find an extract, an audio clip, more review quotes, and her book tour schedule.

Algonquin Books is a featured imprint on Beth Fish Reads. For more information about the imprint, please read Executive Editor Chuck Adams's introductory letter, posted here on January 7, 2011.

Running the Rift at Powell's
Running the Rift at Book Depository
These links lead to affiliate programs.

Published by Workman / Algonquin Books, January 7, 2012
ISBN-13: 9781616200428


Col (Col Reads) 12/9/11, 6:31 AM  

This sounds like a very worthwhile read. Thanks for the excellent review.

Beth(bookaholicmom) 12/9/11, 8:27 AM  

I probably don't know much about the Hutu-Tutsi conflict either, just what little bit I have seen in the movies. It is a hard subject to read about but one I should be more aware of. This sounds like a heartbreaking read but one I may have to tackle.

bermudaonion 12/9/11, 8:30 AM  

I find books like this deeply disturbing and compelling at the same time. It sounds like a must read!

Daryl 12/9/11, 9:16 AM  

If you havent seen Hotel Rowanda, you should .. and I am adding this one to my ever growing list

Zibilee 12/9/11, 10:08 AM  

I have read a few other really glowing reviews of this book, but I think yours has finally convinced me that I need to read this one. It sounds like such an interesting and moving story, and though I know little about the conflict, I think this book would be an amazing read for me. Thanks for the excellent review!

Barbara 12/9/11, 2:04 PM  

Must read this. I remember how the movie "Hotel Rwanda" affected me. The tragedy of this uprising is something we lucky people just can't take in, but it's important that we learn.

guest post blog 12/10/11, 5:52 AM  

Good blog. Thanks for sharing.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks 12/10/11, 10:14 AM  

Reading a well-researched and well-written novel can give us access to history.

Algonquin published another Bellwether winner, didn't they? The editors can really spot outstanding books!

Anonymous,  12/10/11, 5:09 PM  

Yay...a book I've read!! My TBR list is eternally grateful.

Despite the grim topic, it's a very readable and enjoyable book.

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