Running the Rift begins in Rwanda in 1994 and takes the reader through 1998. It is the story of the horrific genocide that devastated the country and pitted neighbor against neighbor. It is also the story of individuals - their dreams, hopes and wreckage.
When the Belgians occupied Rwanda, they classified the people who spoke one language and shared one culture into two separate groups - the Hutus and the Tutsis. They did this by observing the physical characteristics of the people. The Tutsis tended to be thinner and lankier with smaller noses. The Hutus tended to be more muscular and had a stronger, stockier appearance. After these two groups were named, the balance of power shifted repeatedly between them. Sometimes the Tutsis held power and at other times the Hutus did.
At the time that this novel opens, the Hutus are gaining power and want to eradicate the Tutsis who they call `cockroaches' or `dog eaters'. The bloodshed is horrific and no one in this country is spared the death of loved ones or family. President Habyarimana has just seized power and states that he will make the country whole again. However, his words are empty. He is surrounded by thugs who support the genocide. He rules with empty promises. The United Nations have some troops in Rwanda but they are ineffective. The western countries seem not to care what is happening here and do not intervene to put a stop to the bloodshed.
The main protagonist in this novel is a young man named Jean Patrick, a focused and determined student and runner. Despite being a Tutsi, he has the top grades in his class and is accepted into a private boarding school. Jean Patrick is such a good runner that he hopes to make the Olympic team. It looks promising for him. Habyarimana holds him up as a symbol of the unity of Rwanda despite the fact that no unity exists.
Jean Patrick has a grueling schedule of work-outs and is training for the 800 meter event. His coach, Rutembeza, is a man who is difficult to read. He appears to support Jean Patrick and love him like a son but one gets the sense that there is something dark and hidden in his nature. It is he who is responsible for Jean Patrick's future. He secures a Hutu identity card for Jean Patrick so that he can pass himself off as Hutu at security checkpoints.
Once high school is over, Jean Patrick goes off to college in Butare. It is there that he first meets Bea, the love of his life. He becomes close to her family. Bea's father, Niyonzima is an esteemed journalist who has spent several years in jail in the past for writing articles that were deemed insubordinate. His wife Ineza is an artist. They look upon Jean Patrick as a son.
The novel is both historical and personal. The reader is taken through the genocide of a country while sharing the lives of Jean Patrick, Bea and their families. The genocide is viewed through their eyes and how it affects their lives.
The novel has won Barbara Kingsolver's Belwether prize for fiction, a prize that supports fiction that advocates social change. This book is a perfect example of that combination.