Review: In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills by Jennifer Haupt (reviewed by Julie E. Gabrielli)

In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills

By Jennifer Haupt

384 Pages

Central Avenue Publishing, 2018



It is one of the enduring mysteries of the human heart that grief defies sharing. Grief thrusts us into an acute awareness of our frailty, our mortality, our lack of control. It’s excruciating to be exposed in our vulnerability.

Grief is not only isolating. Unshared, it can morph into dangerous and deadly rage.

In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills is an original take on the aftermath of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. It is a story of finding home not just among people, but of belonging to a place. Jennifer Haupt paints a lush Africa: landscapes, sunrises, lakes and rivers, wildflowers, monkeys and birds. Scenes are rich with the sensory details of towns, markets, fields and people.

Grief makes us greedy— we want to hoard our memories, secret away every encounter with our lost loved ones. To share grief is to diminish the intensity of those memories, to dilute that person’s presence in our life. None of Haupt’s characters can escape its transformative power.

Grief propels protagonist Rachel on a quest to find her father, Henry. Why did he leave her and her mother when she was a little girl? Will he return now? Is he a bad father or is she a bad daughter? Grief prevents Lillian from sharing her memories of Henry with Rachel when she first arrives in Rwanda. Ex-pat American doctor Tucker holds his grief for his lost fiancée as a cherished secret.

And yet our thirst for belonging can drive us to mindless violence or, when we are lucky, to community, to family. Often in war, it is the women who are left behind to pick up the pieces and rebuild lives. As Paul Rusesabagina observes in his remarkable book about the genocide, “The elephants fight, but it is the grass that suffers.”

This story has many beautifully touching scenes of women caring, tending, healing, forgiving, and getting up the next day to do it all over again. The hands of the women weave and grow community. They support each other through great suffering and sorrow. The women alchemize grief and grace into amahoro—peace.

Haupt tells her story from multiple points of view—a risky move in the wrong hands. We’ve all read books that skirted the surfaces of too many characters. Fortunately, the gamble pays off.

Rachel is introduced first, so it’s clear that this is her story. We get to know and care about her at a difficult time in her life. Our loyalty is rewarded as her saga unfolds. Wisely, the cast is kept tight, with everyone in Rachel’s orbit living a powerful story of his or her own. These supporting characters interact with each other in effective, believable ways that reveal their distinct longings, flaws and moral codes. If Rachel’s estranged husband Mick seems a bit two-dimensional at first, he rounds out well later in the book. Their reconciliation phone call takes a sudden irreversible turn—the trickster grief having his way again.

Rachel’s father, Henry, was a photographer with an artist’s soul. An underappreciated dreamer, he managed to find a place where he belonged, if only for a short while. Haupt uses photography as both theme and image to strong effect. As windows on a mythic past, photographs both preserve and manufacture memories. They tell important stories that facilitate revelation and connection. Photographers may try to preserve distance by viewing events through a lens, but that can backfire when the stakes are too high. Photography has its dangerous, soul-stealing aspect.

Haupt deftly brushes in Rwanda’s complex, tragic history without oversimplifying. Ethnic resentments—falsely whipped up by white European colonial exploiters—festered for decades. Secondary characters tell their stories with authenticity. Some enemies may find common ground, but Rachel’s father is haunted and ruined by what he witnessed.

In one exchange between Rachel and Tucker, the Golden Rule is treated in an inventive, almost eerie way to illustrate how morality was distorted and perverted by men in power. When she says to him, “Ninety days was a long time for God to take a leave of absence,” I immediately thought of Tom Waits’ dark song, “God’s Away on Business,” with its lines:

“There’s a leak, there’s a leak, in the boiler room

The poor, the lame, the blind

Who are the ones that we kept in charge?

Killers, thieves, and lawyers.”

The story jumps in time between fall of 2000 and the decades before: from the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, through the 70s and 80s to the fateful 1990s of the Rwandan genocide. This is a compelling story with good narrative drive overall. After a bumpy run of flashbacks in the first half, it is well paced. The second half is smoother when the momentum has a chance to build. Scenes turn in quick, surprising, and satisfying ways. Multiple points of view are the only way to present backstories like Rachel’s father Henry, his first love, Lillian, their adopted daughter Nadine, and Doc Tucker, who helps at Lillian’s orphanage. It’s a saga, presented in snapshots. Fitting, since photography is a major theme.

Haupt has a masterful attention to detail, whether in describing the nursery of a lovingly anticipated baby or the aftermath of unspeakable atrocities. Makeshift headstones for murdered children are hand lettered: Red shirt. Kitten barrettes. Green eyes. Photographs and other simple objects convey the eerie ordinariness of evil. A character notices the glint of an earring in the dark grass, then makes the horrifying discovery that it is still attached to an ear.

The story is so good, it deserved more meticulous editing and pruning. While Haupt is a keen observer of the shifting emotional terrain of aloneness and vulnerability, a character’s ruminations were sometimes too on the nose. Moments like this veer into Nicholas Sparks territory: “It’s as if unlocking the place where she remembers her father might repair a piece of her heart that knows how to love, really love. Like a daughter. Like a mother.” Better to sketch in the stakes and let the reader do some work to fill in the rest. “She has chosen to keep her distance from love,” may well be the character having a revelation about herself, but it plays like the author not trusting the reader to get it.

Rachel frequently asks herself a barrage of questions, often to a distracting degree, and as a result, it doesn’t feel as realistic as the outer action and conversations. For example, from near the end of the book, she’s thinking about her father. “Was he torn between being a responsible husband and father, and following his dreams? Had he been trying to do his best back then, too? Is that what he’s doing now?” If those had been speculations rather than questions, Rachel’s confusion could have been buoyed by the inner strength that we have felt all along.

With all the jumping around in time, particularly in the first half of the book, too many inconsistencies of timing also can be confusing and distracting. Whiskey “neat” on one page will not produce the sound of ice jangling on the next. It is not usually bitter cold, nor does it snow, in New York City in September. Nadine’s beloved cousin is called both Sylvia and Sophia on the same page. Tucker somehow makes a phone call in an area where we’ve already been told there’s no cell service. Several instances of misspellings, misused words, clichés, incomplete, and awkward sentences should have been caught in the editing.

Despite these minor editing caveats, the mystery at the heart of Rachel’s story—her father’s whereabouts and whether he will return home—comes to a surprising and satisfying conclusion that ties all the threads together. Tragic memories are finally allowed to surface into the light of day. The story ends on a hopeful, satisfying note in a scene of community reconciliation, aided by the photographs that Henry paid so dearly to obtain. And Rachel finds love and family in an unexpected place. That she recognizes and welcomes this variation on her dream is testament to the boundless renewal that lies hidden in the depths of despair.

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