Seattle-based journalist Jennifer Haupt's debut novel, which weaves together characters and their stories across four decades and two continents, is well worth reading. The author will be making many appearances in the Seattle area.
It’s almost inconceivable, but in the last hundred years alone, this beleaguered planet of ours has seen millions upon millions of people slaughtered in genocides.
For Seattle-based journalist Jennifer Haupt, this is personal. Coming from a Jewish family that had lost relatives during the Holocaust in Europe, she has long wanted to get some kind of handle on these shocking descents into state-sanctioned bloodlust.
In the early 1990s, she traveled to Dachau, the longest-running Nazi concentration camp during World War II, and a site of remembrance since 1965. She found exhibits and tours there, but the stark barracks and crematorium seemed devoid of opportunities for grief or reconciliation.
Eleven years ago, Haupt journeyed to the site of another mass atrocity, Rwanda, where the scars were still raw from the shocking genocidal rout in 1994 that saw the slaughter of some 800,000 individuals and perhaps as many as half a million women raped.
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In this small country, Haupt encountered dozens of impromptu, blood-spattered shrines that had sprung up in the places where victims had been killed. Tended by those who had survived the horror, these sites simmered with a powerful olio of grief, guilt, mistrust, anger and vulnerability. But Haupt also discerned a tentative, aching grope toward grace, if not understanding — and reconciliation, if not forgiveness.
This complex tangle seemed too unwieldy and emotionally freighted for a straightforward factual report, so Haupt began exploring it in a work of fiction. Now, more than a decade since she began this project, her debut novel, “In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills,” has been published.
The story weaves together characters and their stories across four decades and two continents. There’s Nadine, a young Tutsi woman who survived the genocide in Rwanda and has suppressed her memories of the horror. There’s Henry, the photographer who saved her initially, and Lillian, the woman who runs an orphanage and who has looked after her ever since.
There’s Rachel, a New Yorker who has come to Rwanda in search of her long-lost father to staunch “a sadness unraveling from someplace deep within. It’s a barren place where the missing pieces of her father — the stories he told, the jokes they shared … used to fit snugly.”
And there’s Tucker, a doctor who can’t measure up in his father’s eyes, but who means the world to the patients he serves in the rudimentary clinics he works at outside of Kigali.
The author jumps back and forth in time, and tells pieces of the story from many points of view. But Rachel’s perspective seems to predominate, and when she gets to Rwanda, she discovers that the kinds of personal losses she has experienced are writ large on the hearts of everyone she meets there. Grappling with these emotions, discovering solace in unanticipated relationships and learning to move forward into the future while still carrying the woes of the past — all of these characters learn from one another.
Rwanda comes vividly to life on these pages. The people and the animals, the sights and sounds and tastes and smells — all are exquisitely detailed. As is the landscape — the famed hills boast “hues that Rachel has never seen before, mixed with sienna-red clay, amber grass, the light and shade of the clouds passing overhead.”
There is so much texture in this tale — meaning is woven into everything. If anything, Haupt puts perhaps too much stock into talismans — dreamcatchers, lockets, photographs — even a farm. And when it takes her a long time to wrap up this book, it’s in part because she tries to account for every symbol she has introduced over the course of the novel.
But that’s a relatively negligible complaint about a powerful story. “In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills” is well worth reading. It is an eloquent effort to find resilience and connection in the face of grievous loss.
“In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills” by Jennifer Haupt; Central Avenue Publishing; 384 pp, $15.95
Jennifer Haupt will be making many appearances in the Seattle area, including at 6:30 p.m. April 3, Island Books, Mercer Island, and 7 p.m. April 6, Elliot Bay Book Co., Seattle. For a full list and more information, go to http://jenniferhaupt.com/author/events