In The Shadow of 10,000 Hills by Jennifer Haupt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
”After her family was murdered, she didn’t speak for a month Maman tells her, although it felt longer. She stayed in her bedroom, listening to the rustle of the pines in the forest that seemed to cry for her; the fear had drained her of tears. Most of the people in her village were dead. It was being alive, not the deaths, that was somehow shocking. Her existence seemed to be an accident of fate, her life spent waiting in this room in Lillian’s home, this room that was not hers. She was paralyzed, for the inevitable correction.”
The inevitable correction, when the universe finally realizes that she is still alive. It doesn’t have to be a boy with a machete and a wild look in his eyes. It could be a Biblical bolt of lightning from the sky, or maybe she just falls down dead as if her life string has been plucked.
It is hard to live when being alive feels like an offense against the natural order. When being alive feels like a mistake, as if the angel of death just missed scooping her off the earth by a fraction of inches. The swoop of the scythe makes a sound of displaced air as it...misses her.
Nobody escapes this life without losses, but for most of us it is a slow trickle spaced out over decades, so the burden grows, and we can adjust to the weight even though we feel whittled down, weaker, exposed, moved up in line to be the next one to be taken. We are the only species on Earth who knows, without a shadow of a doubt, that we will die. As children we are barely aware of that inevitability, but as we age that awareness grows steadily to the point that we have to even start preparing for it.
For Nadine, a lifetime of loss is crunched into two minutes of madness.
During the Rwandan genocide, a million people, most of them of the Tutsi tribe, were massacred in a matter of a 100 days. 10,000 people a day. Rape has always been an unfortunate part of war, but in the Rwandan genocide it was used as an act of war. It was an insidious tactic to instill fear and make sure that even the survivors were left forever scarred.
This story is not about the genocide, but about the ability of people to grieve and find the scattered pieces of themselves so that they can forge a path to a new life. It is the story of three women. I’ve already introduced you to Nadine. Let me give you an idea of the woman Lillian Carlson. She is an activist in the United States. When Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated, she is disillusioned with her ability to make a difference. She finds that she can make a difference in the lives of orphans in Rwanda. She takes in as many as she can and even more than she should have, but when children have no one she chooses to be their someone.
The third woman is Rachel Shepherd, who is searching for her father. He disappeared when she was a child. With some amateur sleuthing and the benefit of the internet, she traces him to Kwizera, the place of hope built by Lillian in Rwanda. Henry ties these three women together. He knew Lillian in Atlanta and never forgot her. He is the perfect father for Rachel, attentive, fun, and always as interested in her as he is interesting for her. He proves to be the same great substitute father for Nadine when he comes to Rwanda to find Lillian again.
He proves to be an enigma for all three women. He is amazing, and then he just disappears. He is a famous photographer, and maybe, just maybe, he sees things too clearly through the aperture of his camera.
How about this for a snapshot of Kwizera? ”The backyard, if you can call it that, is more of the same, a slash of red dirt and scrubby bushes with some kind of irrigation ditch tricking down the center like a tear. But it’s not totally hopeless. There’s a tall stack of lumber to one side, a rusty green tractor that may or may not work, and an assortment of shovels and rakes splayed on the ground. Two monkeys sit atop the tractor, examining a purple gardening glove. One flicks his tongue at it like a child might test the flavor of a lollipop.”
To some, all they see is desolation in that scene, but for me, all I see is a chance to make paradise.
Jennifer Haupt spent a month in Rwanda interviewing victims of the genocide. She was there as a journalist, but came home with a story that she felt compelled to tell. It is a novel, but like many novels nothing in this book is untrue. We must tell the stories to try to keep the dangerous fallacies of the past from becoming the future. I came away from this book thinking about how life continues after tragedy. I thought about how important it is for survivors to continue to live for those who perished. I thought about how hard it is to find a path when the universe feels so arbitrarily brutal. This book is about finding a place beyond grief and about gathering those around you who need you as much you need them and discovering together a path that will raise you all up together.
I want to thank Jennifer Haupt and Central Avenue Publishing for sending me an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.
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