BOOK CLUB – Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron

Welcome to BOOK CLUB, which I run with co-conspirator Nicole from Linus’s Blanket. Today we will be chatting about Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron, which was released on January 3rd by Algonquin Books (website | twitter | facebook). For those of you reading this post, please remember that this discussion is likely to contain spoilers.

Here is the synopsis of the book I wrote for my review:

For as long as Jean Patrick can remember, he has wanted to be a runner, to represent Rwanda in the Olympics. And he has a gift, he could do this. Except, in addition to being a talented runner, he is also Tutsi. Things are becoming increasingly difficult for the Tutsi in Rwanda, the Hutu are in power, there are ethnic quotas in place, and violence is beginning to escalate. Jean Patrick may be able to overcome his family’s poverty, but can he survive the hatred of his fellow countrymen?

Before we get started, here are some of the reviews of readers who will be participating today:

Between the Covers
Cheap Black Pens
Devourer of Books

Linus’s Blanket
Linus’s Blanket – Literary Feast
Literate Housewife

If you plan on participating in today’s BOOK CLUB, please consider subscribing to comments at the bottom of the page (please use the TOP subscription option). I will be updating this post with new questions and ideas over the course of the day.

Here we go…

  • First off, what were your general impressions of the book?
  • Is this a book you would have read had you not been reading it for a book club?
  • How did you respond to Jean Patrick’s eternal optimism/naivete?
  • Prior to reading Running the Rift, how much did you know about the Rwandan genocide? Did this at all change your understanding of the event?
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33 comments to BOOK CLUB – Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron

  • I really liked this book and I would have read it even without BOOK CLUB. I know quite a bit about the Rwandan genocide–I’ve been doing a lot of reading about it since it happened. I liked that Benaron chose to write about it from a personal perspective because it reminds us that the Rwandans involved aren’t just statistics or nameless bodies.

    I liked the storyline she chose–I’m sure there were a lot of Rwandans like Jean Patrick who thought they could somehow avoid what was happening. Honestly, how does a person even begin to process something so evil in a situation like that? I think my brain would automatically seek to deny things, too. I don’t know.

    I just can’t imagine experiencing anything like that.

    • I think the naivete worked well too. Initially I thought it was slow to build, but then I realized I probably felt that way because I knew a little about the time–and the people at that time wouldn’t know what was about to happen.

      • I felt the same way as you did about the pacing. It seemed like it was a little slow in the beginning, but that made it that much more powerful later on as the conditions got worse. It really allowed you to see how people could calmly live in the midst of something that got so bad. And life is like that. Nothing but death ever stops anyone from having to live, so no matter what is going on you have to continue on with your day-to-day.

        • I also found the pacing slow at the start…but I liked how Benaron took her time building the characters and by the time I got to the real meat of the story, I was very invested in them.

  • I absolutely loved Running the Rift. I clicked with it immediately. I hadn’t necessarily been expecting that. I thought this book would be interesting, but that the book and I would be an arm’s distance away from each other. Before I knew what happened, I was very much invested in Jean Patrick and his family.

    When this book arrived at my house (and I can’t remember if I had actually signed up for this month or not), I thought it looked interesting. Had it not been for this event, I’m not sure that I would have picked it up to read yet. I’m very glad that I had a reason to sit and focus on this novel. It really is a gem of a book.

    I don’t believe that Jean Patrick could have been anything other than his driven, optimistic self. His political blinders were necessary, a gift. Had he fully had his eyes open, he would have joined up with his brother and perhaps died as a result. He never would have cultivated his talent and he never would have grown into the survivor he really was. He was the continuation of his father’s life in that way.

    I remember hearing about the genocide on the news and wondering how on earth we allowed that to happen again. Hadn’t Nazi Germany ended that? Apparently not. I also remember feeling guilty because I knew how it could happen again. I was in my early 20s and living in my own little world at the time. I wasn’t paying any real attention to anything outside of my small world. You realize how lucky you are when you stack up your own troubles to something like that. While reading this novel, I realized that I never heard about it at all until it was really too late.

    Here is a link to my review:

    • I mostly became aware of it after the fact. I had no idea of the numbers of people who had been murdered. It does seem unreal. I saw Hotel Rwanda and later had a fiction novel that was also heavily based around the events that took place at Hotel de Mille Collines with a book club. The name of the book escapes me now.

      When I read Running the Rift I thought a lot about the United States and the things that go on that we take note of and may or may not deem as important as they should be. I think a lot depends on access to information, and then of course hindsight is 20/20. I think Jean Patrick showed also how easily you can be living your life and apart of such widescale tragedy at the same time.

      • I remember hearing about it at the time, but again, I had no idea the scope of it until some courses in college years later and my viewing of Hotel Rwanda.

        • I don’t remember hearing about it much, but when I did it somehow seemed like it was in another world. The Rwandan genocide became this thing I couldn’t quite place in time or location. Hotel Rwanda made me realize how recent it all was, and that was quite shocking.

          • I remember the events unfolding, but through the lens of the US media…I don’t remember it being BIG news here until AFTER the massacre. I found this book made me a little uncomfortable being an American. I do believe we have a responsibility to act in cases like this and I don’t think we do act unless (as the novel points out) our financial interests are involved. Rwanda is not a country that supplies us with oil or is important in our economy…and so, sadly, when the killing started, we looked the other way.

      • Excellent point about how people even close to events can be blind to what is going on. I need to see Hotel Rwanda.

  • I also loved RUNNING THE RIFT, just a fabulous and heart-breaking book.

    For most of the book I totally understood Jean-Patrick’s denial of what was happening, and denial that anything could happen to him and his family, although at times towards the end I wanted him to be more aware and more careful, less sure that a Hutu pass could save him.

    I knew some about the Rwandan genocide before reading RUNNING THE RIFT, not as much, I don’t think, as Heather, but I’d read about it some and had watched HOTEL RWANDA. I think Benaron did a particularly good job explaining the situation, without going into info dump mode or becoming pedantic, even for those who already knew the basics.

    • There have been a lot of books written on the subject, but I read one in particular that will always stay with me. It’s titled MACHETE SEASON, and it’s a non-fiction look at the Hutu side of the genocide. A journalist (? I can’t remember the man’s name) interviews four of the men who are in jail for their participation in the slaughter. It’s very sobering, but worth reading (in case anyone is interested).

      *SPOILERS* I also wished that Jean Patrick had paid more attention to what was going on around him. And I bawled when I knew his family had been killed and when I thought Bea had been killed (and when I knew her family had been killed).

      • Jean Patrick was an interesting character for me and I thought Benaron did a good job with the balance for him. Had she not fleshed him out so successfully and made his family so real (especially his realtionship with his father and his father’s journal), it would have been easy to dismiss him as too naive. He was stiill frustrating for me at times because it was getting to be so dangerous for him that I did want him to open his eyes a little more and to be more cautious. He and Bea were an interesting partnership in a sense, she is his opposite in every way – ethnic background, political awareness and views, and her approach to life. Like readers, I feel like she must have had the push/pull feelings around him and his naivete.

        • I agree–you could feel Bea’s frustration with him in a few places in the story. I really loved Bea as a character, too.

          • Bea was an amazing character. She seemed very authentic and brought a lot to the story, including some exposition about the situation, without being too exposition-y.

            • I, too, loved Bea as a character. When she was first introduced, I thought it a bit convenient, but as the story went on, I loved her activism and passion.

              • Bea was one of my favorite characters. I loved her spark, her strength, her rage at what was happening and her willingness to risk.

                SPOILER ALERT:

                When Jean Patrick gets the phone call toward the end of the book from Bea, I burst into tears. I could not help myself. I really had believed Bea was dead and that Jean Patrick was just in denial…so when his hope became a reality, it really moved me.

  • I had really hoped to have this one finished before this morning – but, I still have a ways to go (I’m about 1/2 through). So far I am LOVING the book. I like the writer’s “voice” and I think she captures the countryside of Rwanda beautifully. I’m taking my book to work with me and hope to have some “down” time during my work day to read…so I will be back at the end of the day with more to add to the discussion!

  • Amanda (tnrunner66)

    Overall I really loved this book. That being said, I wasn’t crazy about the ending. I can’t exactly put my finger on why but something about the ending just didn’t sit well with me and didn’t seem to “fit” with the rest of the book.

    I first read about your book club on twitter the same day I had talked about the book with my local indie bookseller so I was already planning to read it but am so happy to have people to talk about it with so thanks for allowing a non-blogger to join in :)

    I adored Jean Patrick and his eternal optimism I think it was a large part of what kept him alive.

    Prior to reading this my only other experience was the movie Hotel Rwanda and after I saw that I did a little reading on the internet. I am sorry to say that when the events were actually happening I knew virtually nothing of it. There was one line in the book that I meant to mark because now I can’t find it but it had to do with a comment about the US not helping because Rwanda had no oil or basically anything the US wanted. That comment really hit home some of our foreign policy and not in a good way for sure!

    • We’re so glad you joined in!

    • Unfortunately, that is typical U.S. foreign policy and it happens all the time. If the country asking for help has nothing that would benefit us (notably oil or anything else that would bring us a large amount of money), then we have no interest in helping them. I remember when we first started hearing about what was going on in Rwanda… I remember being so angry with a president that I liked so much doing nothing to help those people. I remember that it sounded like everyone was backing out (or had already backed out) on them, leaving them to fight alone and be murdered. What a horrible situation.

      One of the things I liked best about Benaron’s book, though, was that she showed how strong people were in the face of what was happening–how Tutsis still held their heads high and how some Hutus refused to participate in the killing of their friends and neighbors. I liked that she made it a point to recognize the resilience of a people so terrorized.

      • Heather: I also loved that about the characters and Benaron’s writing – she showed that the evil was not ALL Hutus…there were so many innocent victims on both sides. And I loved how she showed the human ability to survive in the face of horror…and then to be able to move forward again.

  • I was eager to read Running the Rift since it won the Bellwether Prize. I’ve become a huge advocate for the prize and plan to read all the winners this year. I knew some about the Rwandan genocide, but as always, fiction really makes the events more human. I began to understand how it came to happen rather than just knowing it was an atrocious event. It was quite illuminating, and it has certainly shaped my view of Rwanda.

  • Unfortunately I’m not very far into the book yet, as I’d planned to be by now, so I can’t say much. So far I’m kind of on the fence about it…I’m not clicking much with Jean Patrick, for some reason. Reading all these enthusiastic reviews is really encouraging me to stick with it though!

  • I loved the book. I knew from the first few pages that I would enjoy it, and I ended up buying a copy to send to my best friend for his birthday. I don’t know if I would have picked it up at the bookstore, but I’m glad I got this for BOOK CLUB. I recommended it to quite a few coworkers and I hope more people will pick it up.

    I was a little surprised at how long (to me, at least) it took for Jean Patrick to see what was happening in his country. I felt it was a product of his upbringing, and you can see how and why Bea and Jean Patrick react differently. I wonder if Jean Patrick had been closer to Roger’s age and gone away to school around the same time if he would have transitioned to a more political figure earlier.

    I did have some background of the Rwandan genocide, but this book made it so human. I thought the author used Jean Patrick’s running and training regimen to reinforce the political climate.

    • Can you elaborate on the idea of the training reinforcing the political climate?

      • I think it makes sense if you’re looking at the training and political climate from Jean Patrick’s eyes. At first, Jean Patrick just wants to run – he’s a little unfocused but there’s this desire boiling up in him (stirrings of violence). He begins to compete against others (Hutus vs. Tutsis), but he’s ultimately competing against himself (civil war). Eventually, he has to give up on his brutal training just to survive (exodus of refugees). Maybe it’s kind of simplifying the genocide and boiling it down, but I really saw the training regimens and focus on running and as a thread to mirror the nation’s political climate at the time. Thoughts? Criticisms?

  • My apologies for being so late to the discussion….this was a terrible week of work for me and my reading has suffered all month. BUT, that said, I loved this book. I would most likely have read it regardless of BOOK CLUB because this is the kind of literature I am drawn to. I found Jean Patrick’s naivete very believable. He was focused on the Olympics and his own personal dreams. He was not politically minded. And he was the eternal optimist. I found it heartbreaking that when things fell apart, Jean Patrick was forced to see the world in a negative way. He lost his innocence. Jean Patrick struggled to move forward after the massacre – he had lost nearly everything.

    My knowledge of what happened in Rwanda was pretty good before I read the book…which made it that much more dreadful for me as the novel progressed because I knew what was coming.

    This was a terrific, heartbreaking book. I hope to have a review up sometime today.

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