"RUNNING THE RIFT." By Naomi Benaron. Algonquin Books. $24.95.
When a book wins an award for promoting social justice -- in this case, the Bellwether Prize, established by writer Barbara Kingsolver -- one might expect it to be heavy-handed or preachy.
"Running the Rift" is neither of those: it's a nuanced, complex portrait of people in a nation riven by conflict.
When a book is set during genocide -- in this case, the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s -- one might expect it to be irredeemably depressing.
"Running the Rift" is unsparing in its depiction of the hatred and violence, but doesn't let that crowd out the goodness of family and friendship and the power of hope.
The book isn't a war story; it's the story of a boy growing up in Africa, a boy who can run very fast, fast enough to dream of Olympic gold.
Jean Patrick Nkuba, the runner, is a Tutsi, a distinction that shouldn't matter but does. Because of who he is, his path is set in ways he can't control. Because people are focused on the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi, and are willing to kill because of it, his country is forever changed.
As a boy, Jean Patrick loses his father not to war, but to a car accident. He and his family leave their home at the school where his father taught to move in with an uncle, but because Jean Patrick is a skilled student as well as a gifted athlete, he is able to continue his schooling. And he has the love and support of his extended family in doing so.
As he pursues higher education -- and moves up the ladder of competitive track -- he becomes more aware of the tenuous political situation in Rwanda. He watches with alarm as longstanding tensions flare between Tutsi and Hutu; he must tolerate the casual slur of "cockroach" applied to all Tutsi.
And he must make a difficult choice when an opportunity presents itself: should he take a Hutu ID card to ease his way?
As Jean Patrick closes in on his goal of the Olympics, he realizes that there is far more to it than winning a medal for himself. "Run as if your life depended on it," a friend's father tells him. "As if all our lives depended on it."
"Running the Rift" does not spare readers the horrors of the violence in Rwanda, but never loses sight of the beauty -- the love and, yes, the hope -- that persists even amid such a desperate situation.
-- Lisa McLendon