So much beauty, so much sorrow (Manhattan to Mubaro, Rwanda 2000/1994; Atlanta 1960s, other intervening years/locales; epilogue 2004): In exquisite, sorrowful prose, In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills is wrenching historical fiction that cries out, sings, lingers to express what’s essentially inexpressible. And yet, it has a spiritual soul that uplifts us.
America recently named its newest Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo, whose poetry “powerfully connects us to the earth and the spiritual world with direct, inventive lyricism that helps us reimagine who we are.” The same can be said of Jennifer’s Haupt’s searing lyrical prose, depicting characters and a tortured nation “hoping that mankind’s capacity for love is greater than the history of their deeds.”
How can a work of fiction be so beautiful when it’s drawn from the “unfathomable loss” of horrific crimes against humanity? How can its characters find “peaceful stillness” and purpose amongst so much “secret sadness”? In 1994 Rwanda, nearly 1 million people were slaughtered, raped (“rape is a powerful weapon of war throughout Africa”), and tortured. All in less than 100 days, pitting neighbor against neighbor, the majority group, Hutu, against the minority group Tutsi. How to reconcile the Rwandan genocide in a country famed for its endangered mountain gorillas, who tenderly care for their babies, when its people inhumanly deserted theirs?
“Dedicated to everyone searching for amahoro” – which means peace in one of Rwanda’s national languages, Kinyarwanda – peace and healing are what Haupt’s story is about. Just like Rwanda’s Tutsi president, Paul Kagame, who has been “stirring hope with his talk about reconciliation and forgiveness” since 2000, when the novel opens.
It’s in this sense that Rwanda’s past and present struggles with its brutal history serve as a universal, contemporary tale for people all around the world seeking peace and reconciliation. Seeking answers is also what the journalist-turned-author was doing when she spent a month in Rwanda twelve years after the genocide to “explore the connections between forgiveness and grief.” She returned with the “bones of a novel,” and something much deeper than that.
You don’t have to read Haupt’s illuminating piece in Psychology Today, in which she describes how the two weeks she spent traveling through remote mountain villages at the foothills of the Virunga Mountains in the Rift Valley, to understand how profoundly personal her connection to the genocide was. She’d visited Germany’s Dachau concentration camp years earlier, but it wasn’t until she witnessed up-close the magnitude of the aftermath of Rwanda’s atrocities that her soul was deeply affected. You don’t have to read the article because her soulful prose and characters tell us that.
Peace is what all the good characters want. Henry Shepherd is the one who brings them all together and connects them, yet he’s nowhere to be found except in memories and revelations by the others. His disappearance is a mystery, driving the plot.
In 2000 Manhattan, Henry’s married daughter Rachel, 33, is searching for him, for answers. Why did he abandon her at eight and her mother Merilee? Her mother’s recent death to a long-suffering illness has sparked a renewed, more desperate search than earlier attempts.
Bedridden for four difficult months to prevent a second miscarriage, pregnant Rachel has plenty of time to think about and yearn for her father, so at least one grandparent will get to know her child, whom she’s already named and bonded with. Grief and sorrow lead her to finally open a box of her mother’s things, which include an arresting picture her father, a photographer, took of a young woman inside Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in the mid-sixties, during the height of the civil rights movement.
That angelic image – “slivers of gold and purple light from a stained glass window falling around her like an exploding meteor” – was captured against the backdrop of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the pulpit. The photo launched her father’s career when it appeared (fictionally) on the cover of Life magazine in April 1968 (see the real one), after the spiritual leader was gunned down. The assassination of a man who led us to the mountaintop shocked the nation, still does. His booming voice wails today, as we’re still caught between dreaming or giving up.
Lillian Carlson is one of the dreamers, inspired by King to “help change the world.” Her name was written on the back of that life-changing photo. Why did Henry keep updating Lillian’s phone number so many years after he shot the image? Thanks to the early days of the Internet, Rachel learns Lillian doesn’t live in Atlanta anymore but in a mountain village in Rwanda, where she farms and mothers orphaned children who lost their families in the genocide.
The children are Lillian’s “saving grace.” Meanwhile she’s saved forty-eight children over decades. In 2000, four call Lillian’s home, the orphanage, their home. Named Kwizera, meaning Hope, Faith, Believe, it sits in the those shadowy “tiered foothills ribboned with banana trees” at the base of mountains that protect awe-inspiring wildlife like those gorillas Henry also photographed. The same gorillas and mountains legendary Dian Fossey of Gorillas in the Midst studied and lived among. Murdered in a cabin in those mountains with the same gruesome genocide weapon, a machete, her death is another piercing, cruel, senseless tragedy.
In addition to the four young orphaned children, there’s an older one, Nadine, with her own horrifying past. Away on a music scholarship at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, she comes home for the holidays when Rachel shows up at Lillian’s doorstep. Rachel assumed the invitation she received, after several back and forth emails explaining she was looking for her father, was written by Lillian, but it wasn’t. Daniel Tucker sent it.
Daniel has a heart of gold. He’s been living on and off with Lillian and the children for the past seven years, when he’s not working at a clinic in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, caring for orphans. By the time he picks Rachel up at the Nairobi airport, over one hundred pages have unfolded about Lillian’s connection to Henry, therefore Rachel’s.
On the journey to Murabo, to Lillian, Rachel observes Daniel has the “hands of a surgeon in a war zone,” cluing us in to his doctoring story and why once he came to Rwanda on a UCLA medical internship volunteering for the Red Cross he never left. Rachel also notices his “eyes are a soft green. Sad.” He, like the others, hides his sadness, “love and loss,” which connect him to one of the four children at the orphanage: delightful seven-year-old Rosie who has her own challenges. Daniel’s deep attachment to Rosie tells us everything about his capacity for love and commitment.
Rachel is greeted by a very cool Lillian, who remains a “Lady of Steel” towards her for much of the novel. Perplexing to Rachel since since gives so much to the others, including the “genocide widows.” The reader will figure out why it’s so hard for Lillian to let her in.
The unfolding of characters’ stories and strength is life-affirming as they bond over shared grief. Their “reverence for the natural beauty that cannot be destroyed,” also offers hope.
What will it take for our country to feel connected to each other? To find purpose like Haupt’s characters find in spite of everything that’s happened? There’s an answer in those shadowy hills.