February 27

One Thousand Hills – Remembering Rwanda

One Thousand HillsFor Pascale, life had a predictable routine which included regular chores at home, regular teasing by his older brother and a pattern to the week. As a child in Rwanda, life was simple, but set in a loving and supportive family. He knew the happiness of running around with his friend, Henri; the pestering of a (lovable) little sister, Nadine, and the warmth of his loving parents.

But things were set to change, as events with catastrophic impact on the country of Rwanda ignited.

James Roy has set his novel ‘One Thousand Hills’ in April 1994, in the days leading up to, and during, the first of 100 days the genocide in which eight hundred thousand Rwandans were slaughtered. Through the eyes of Pascale, we view some of the horror and the impact of civil strife on innocents – innocents who are caught ‘hiding or running in fear’ when they should be running around in the playful games of childhood.

Through the voice of Pascale, we slowly learn of the whispers and hushed tones that alert him to something being amiss. His neighbour, Mrs Malolo released her chickens, explaining to them:

We can’t take you with us… I hope you lay your eggs somewhere peaceful and safe.

Things were even noticeably different at church on Sunday, in what was usually a joyous occasion in the week. The sermon was ominous, and afterwards people were less cordial to one another. ‘An uncomfortable heaviness hung in the air.’ Pascale notes. He also noted glances and nods  between his parents, as if there was something secret they were sharing.

As a 10 year old boy, the explanation of events Pascale is able to give is cloudy, fragmented and incomplete. Interjected in between these descriptions, however, is the record of counselling sessions with Pascale as a 15 year old – a 15 year old dealing with a traumatic past. But waht we read is enough to imagine the horrific times.

The ugly divisiveness of cultural differences between the Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda is introduced in several ways, including the tearful break-up of his teacher, Miss Uwazuba and her boyfriend – ‘A Hutu Romeo and a Tutsi Juliet’. Many others with whom Pascale had friendships within his village Agabande, end up rejecting him – and slowly, with increasing uneasiness, he begins to understand the radio news about ‘crushing the cockroaches’.

In ‘One Thousand Hills’ James Roy tackles an enormous event in world history, in partnership with Noel Zihabamwe, who actually lived through these events as a ten year old. Their reasons are clear:

We wanted to tell this story because we believe it’s only by understanding the terrible and tragic events of the past that we can prevent similar events happening again in the future. (Author’s Note)

A challenging read. While ‘One Thousand Hills’ is not a happy tale, it reminds us of a bleak part of world history which has had far-reaching consequences (including two decades of unrest in neighbouring DR Congo, which have cost the lives of an estimated five million people) – something we cannot simply brush aside or ignore.

Sometimes we need to take on challenging reads like this, or those listed below. What do you think?

Further reading

Rwanda genocide: 100 days of slaughter (BBC News) explains more.

For an older (biographical) perspective on Rwanda, read:

May 1

The Fault in our Stars by John Green

“I went to Support Group for the same reason that I’d allowed nurses with a mere eighteen months of graduation to poison me with exotically named chemicals: I wanted to make my parents happy. There is only one thing in this world shittier than biting it from cancer when you’re sixteen, and that’s having a kid who bites it from cancer.”

Obviously, Hazel doesn’t think much of her Support Group. But as an only child and the concentrated focus of her parents’ life since her cancer diagnosis, she succumbs to their wishes. What else can she do? Her illness has meant that she no longer attends school regularly, she has to sleep a lot, while her mother tries to encourage her to have a normal life. How normal can it really be when you know you have a terminal illness?

This is not a ‘happy-ending’ story. Very often in real life children and families fighting cancer do not have a happy ending. This is not a book to make you feel good, or to tell you how to be when someone you know experiences the illnesses associated with cancer. But it will make you think.

This fan-made book trailer gives some insight into the thoughts within ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ – a story of what happens when teen cancer patients fall in love.

In an interview, author John Green makes the statement:

“It’s important to note or remember that people who are sick and people who are dying aren’t dead. They’re still alive. And sometimes we forget that, and we treat the sick and the dying so gingerly and so carefully, when often what they most want is to be alive while they are alive.” ‘Star’-Crossed: When Teens With Cancer Fall In Love

That is why he wanted his book to be realistic, and not a sugar-coated tale ready for Hollywood to take to film. The kids in ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ want to live and make their mark on the world.

What sort of impression have they made on you, the reader?

July 16

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece

Once upon a time, Jamie had twin sisters – but that was before the bombing. Since then, the fairytale has changed, and his family has become disjointed.

Now, his mum lives in London; while he and his sister (Rose’s twin) live with their alcoholic father – with Rose’s cremation urn on their mantelpiece.

‘My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece’ is told from the perspective of 10 year old Jamie, as he struggles to settle into a new school; dealing with bullying issues and the impacts of the family’s horrendous past. Clearly, Dad still struggles with the loss of a child; and Rose’s twin, Jasmine, reveals her own issues along the way.

Jamie is ever-hopeful that his mum will return,  and take family life back to normal. In the meantime, one of his only friends at school is Sunya – a girl with Muslim heritage.  It is hard for Jamie, in his childhood innocence, to understand why this might be a problem for his father to deal with.

So Jamie hatches a plan – one which will bring Mum back to the family, even though she already seems to have missed some of the most important family events in the last year. Jasmine is reluctant to get on board with his plans, but may be convinced to help out. And what about Sunya – will she understand that Jamie is not like his father? and would her parents also forgive Jamie for his father’s intolerances?

Lots of issues are reflected in this tale – told without driving to a fairy tale ending. It’s a well written debut novel for Annabel Pitcher – I’m just not sure about any of the cover images I’ve seen yet. Will they grab the audience they need?

Engaging, sad, reflective. What do you think?