All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: One Thousand Hills by James Roy & Noel Zihabamwe

on October 30, 2017

One Thousand Hills
James Roy & Noël Zihabamwe
Omnibus Books (Scholastic AUS)
2016, 229p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

Agabande, Rwanda, April 1994.

Life is simple but good. Pascal and his brother go to school with their friends, their parents work hard and their little sister is growing up, and on a Sunday almost everyone they know goes to church to thank God for his goodness. But lately there have been whispers and suspicious glances around town, and messages of hate on the radio and people are leaving…. Then in one awful night, Pascal’s ordinary life in the land of a thousand hills is turned upside down.

When I was in primary school almost thirty years ago, Scholastic did book club catalogues which we took home and used to order books. I think a school got a percentage of the sales to perhaps use to get books for the library as well. I was always an avid reader, so I loved getting the new book club catalogues and picking out books. I didn’t always get something but pretty often my parents would try and get me one from my wishlist. When my own kids started school, I was pleased to see that they still do this and always try and encourage my kids to choose something that interests them. I admit to also looking myself – there’s a YA section and when I saw this book, I immediately ordered it for myself. I’ve never read anything concerning the Rwandan genocide before and certainly nothing from a child’s perspective. I was 12 when the genocide happened and like most kids my age, probably completely oblivious that it was even taking place. At that age, something like that is incomprehensible.

Pascal is a child in 1994. I’m not sure of his exact age, probably somewhere around 10-12. He has two older brothers, the oldest of which has gone to Belgium to study at university. His other brother Jean-Baptiste is mostly a pain in the way that older brothers are, putting dead rats or broody hens in Pascal’s bed of a morning and constantly lording it over him. Pascal is envious of Jean-Baptiste because his job is to ring the church bell and that’s a job Pascal desperately wants. He also has a younger sister who turns 5  and the family live a happy life. The boys have chores to do such as collecting eggs, tending the goat, helping their father in the garden. Thanks to the generosity of their brother studying abroad, they also have a water tank which means they do not need to trek in order to collect water for their household use.

Pascal is oblivious to the turmoil building in the country until he hears a broadcast on the radio, a sneering derision of the “cockroach” infestation in the country. Because of his youth, he takes it literally as a bug infestation rather than seeing the metaphor. It doesn’t take him long to pick up on the unease though and the fact that some people are acting differently to before. Their neighbours leave abruptly and Pascal’s father is clearly uneasy but reluctant to discuss the details with his young sons. On the night the bloodshed begins, they are completely unprepared and Pascal is left hiding for his very life and wondering about the fate of the rest of his family.

Because this is essentially a book for probably young teens and up, there’s no portrayal of brutal violence or graphic descriptions of the aftermath as such. It’s all very much through the eyes of a child and instead the reader is left to read between the lines and pick out the danger and imagine the horror. I found this actually surprisingly effective because it seems like such a genuine experience – you can imagine that there were probably thousands of children just like Pascal in Rwanda who had no idea of what was coming and were mercilessly slaughtered along with their families. Over 100 days some 800,000 (and possibly as many as a million) people are believed to have been killed in Rwanda in 1994, 8000 people a day. Those sorts of numbers are very difficult to imagine – it wiped out about 70% of the Tutsi population but the Hutu also executed moderate Hutu and those married or engaging with the Tutsi. It also created long lasting effects on the population – millions of people were displaced and ended up in refugee camps and it spiked a HIV epidemic due to the relentless use of rape as a part of the warfare. Many people were killed by people they probably knew, or at least were familiar with and others were massacred seeking shelter in places like churches.

I think the thing that I found most disturbing about this book was the way in which Pascal’s peaceful, happy life changed so quickly. He and his family have such a good dynamic – his kind but still quite strict father paired with quite a bossy mother who is making sure that she keeps the boys in line, doing their chores. His younger sister, the baby of the family gets away with a lot which makes Pascal good naturedly resent her because she has yet to be assigned chores. Pascal and his brother Jean-Baptiste have a believable acrimonious relationship rife with sibling rivalry but also possessing a few moments of brotherly connection. For Pascal, perhaps his father’s desire to keep them in the dark of the turmoil about to swallow their country means that they’re unprepared but I don’t think they believed that it would happen the way that it did and they sought to protect their children from hatred and judgement and perhaps keep that childhood innocence as long as possible. Unfortunately for Pascal, that innocence was brutally stripped away from him as he hid for his life in his secret spot, was betrayed by someone he trusted and was forced to bear witness to the atrocities that had happened in his village as he tried to escape.

And if it seems so realistic, it’s probably because on some level, it is. One of the authors, Noël Zihabamwe was a child in 1994 in Rwanda. His parents were murdered and he ended up in a Catholic orphanage before coming to Australia not speaking a word of English. His life story is truly remarkable and he now works tirelessly with refugees in Australia, helping them settle into their new homes.

I find this a very understated book with a powerful story to tell and I think it’s been well written for its intended audience. It gives children a chance to be educated and to ask questions, to try and understand terrible real life events at younger ages. And for  me as an adult, it was a good platform to begin – since then I’ve done a lot of reading on Rwanda and the genocide from non fiction sources and I also plan to look for some adult fiction books as well because even though it’s weird to say “I enjoyed this” about a book with such a brutal subject matter, I did enjoy it. I’d like to read more books set in Rwanda, those that tackle the genocide as well as ones that don’t.


Book #176 of 2017



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