Saturday, April 07, 2007

Over A Thousand Hills I Walk With You

Over A Thousand Hills I Walk With You by Hanna Jansen, Jeanne d'Arc Umubyeyi. Translated by Elizabeth D. Crawford.

The Plot: A work of fiction about the Rwandan Genocide; based on what happened to the author's adopted daughter, who at age eight survived the Rwandan Genocide.

The Good: My immediate reaction to this book is best summed up: Horrible, horrible, horrible. Where to hide? Nowhere.

Jeanne is eight at the time of the genocide; the book begins with Jeanne at age six, and while at first I thought "this is slow, why," I soon realized that this served several purposes, including as a memorial to a way of life and an extended family that was brutally ended. When the slaughter starts we "know" Jeanne's family. And the loss and horror is much more than if the book had begun on the day the killings started, with the family members only names.

Eight. Think about that. You know an eight year old; protected, perhaps spoiled, watched, loved, supervised. Just like Jeanne. Think about the kids you know who are eight; and watching mother, sister, brother, murdered, yet somehow getting up, walking, searching, going on.

And that child not just living; not just surviving; but creating a full life for herself. Over a Thousand Hills contains short flash-forward chapters of Jeanne in Germany, now a teenager, with loved ones, mourning but also laughing. As the machetes fall, they serve to remind the reader, this one child makes it. Babies didn't survive; people killed their own nephews in the name of tribal purity; adults died; yet this child got up, walked, was buffeted around, lived.

As with Deogratias, this is a must read. It's a good compliment to Deogratias, since Over A Thousand Hills provides so much day to day detail on life, and more background information about what was happening. And, in all honesty? Deogratias is about how people are broken by events; Over A Thousand Hills shows a child who refuses to be broken.

Why is this a YA book? Why not adult, since the point of view of Jeanne's adoptive mother is included? Jeanne may be ages six to eight, but this isn't a child's book; it's not just the subject matter, and length, but it's also the words, the framework, the voice. Not a children's book. But there's something about how the story is framed by those short chapters in the present, of Jeanne as a teenager, that add to this feeling YA-ish.

One thing that is shown very well is "that moment"; the point in time when people realize that they can no longer cling to the pretense of normalcy. That life has changed. The nightmare is permanent. And, with Jeanne's parents, the moment when hope is lost.

And the details.... the father trying to hide with his children, yet knowing it is just a temporary respite. That was the worst; realizing that there was no place to hide, no place to run to. I am haunted by the image of the father, hiding in brush, with his daughter, and another child who he has somehow picked up, minutes after his wife and daughter have been killed; and the murderers getting closer; and this man paying for a few more hours of life for this small band of people. Handing over money and things of value, knowing that more people will come and that nothing will be left to buy these lives for another hour, and seriously -- they are surrounded. There is no where to go. No one to trust.

While it has nothing to do with the substance of the story, I also liked that the author is German and this book is a translation from German; that Jeanne's safe haven was Germany. Because sometimes YA and children's books are a little too American-centric; I know that part of the reason is that the true story is a child adopted by a German family, but seriously -- look at Sold, a great book where the child is saved by an American. Almost every book published in the US about emigration from a homeland to a "new life" has those people go to the US. I understand why this happens; but it's not entirely accurate. It's refreshing to read something so not US-centric, and that shows lives in other countries (not just Rwanda, but also Germany.)

The quote that stays with me: "Only at the very worst moment can you tell friend from foe." Jeanne lives because of friends and foes who for no known reason don't kill her. Her survival is random; but it's also due to the strength of spirit.

Links:

My review of Deogratias, including links about the Rwandan Genocide and the current atrocities in Darfur.
Talking with Hanna Jansen (PDF) (at author's site).
Propernoun review.
Left to Tell : Discovering God Amidst the Rwaandan Holocaust by Immaculee Ilibagiza, an autobiography about a college student who survives physically by hiding in a small bathroom with many other women; and survives mentally, emotionally, and spiritually by faith, including coming to a place of forgiveness.

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