Thursday, October 13, 2011

Now Is The Time For Running by Michael Williams

"What is worse than the sound of wood against the bones of your brother?  I cannot think of anything worse than that."
This book just plain broke my heart. It's a powerful, hard story out of Zimbabwe and South Africa, but for me  the location faded away after a while because the characters and events  grabbed my attention so forcefully.   This is the kind of book I think of when people talk about literature's power to make us understand "the other", because really, what could be more different from my life than the experience of a homeless teen refugee whose one link to "normalcy" is his love of  soccer?  But anyone who understands not belonging,  or the strength of the love you can feel for someone you need to protect, or the way hope and fear can heighten and fuse together for people in desperate conditions will completely get this book.

Now Is The Time For Running is the story of Deo, who must flee his native village in Zimbabwe with his older brother Innocent when soldiers come to town and slaughter everyone in the name of the President.

"I am Commander Jesus.  I am one of the president's men.  I was once a leader of the Five Brigade.  The president has sent me here because he is unhappy with how you voted in the election.  Most of you know that this country was won by the barrel of the gun.  There are some among you who fought in the war of liberation.  I see it in your eyes.  You know who you are, and you should be ashamed of your neighbors.  You know what sacrifices were made for the freedom we now enjoy.  Should we now let it go at the stroke of a pen?  Should one just write an X and let the country go just like that?  You voted wrongly at the election.  You were not thinking straight.  That is why the president sent me here."

Deo and Innocent escape the carnage with their lives, and are the only ones in their village to do so.  But the soldiers may return, and they must not be found.  Where to go?  Their mother had a friend in the police force of  a nearby city, but even he cannot help them--when they flee to Captain Washington's home, the soldiers are there too.  Captain Washington tells them that they must escape to South Africa.  Maybe they will be able to find their father there.  The journey is insanely dangerous, and when they finally arrive,  they find that the safe haven they have been running to is less welcoming than they could ever have imagined.

Sometimes I think it's harder to read certain types of stories as an adult than as a child, for all that children are supposed to be more sensitive.  Children are also more comforted by the happy ending.  But as an adult, I know how the numbers break down--the number of children in the world who are refugees or survivors of political violence  (lots) versus the numbers of teen refugees who are plucked off the streets and chosen to participate in the Street Soccer World Cup (precious few).  I'm not saying the ending felt fake, exactly.  It just felt a little desperate, like it was worked in because nothing that might more realistically happen is going to repair the damage that has been done to lives we have come to care about.   The three young men who provided Williams with background interviews for this book are still homeless and are currently living "on the streets of Cape Town, under highways, and wherever they can find shelter.".  Their lives are the reality behind the fiction.

I haven't even mentioned the crux of the story, that Innocent is intellectually challenged and subject to seizures and obsessive-compulsive behavior.  He's a prime target for bullying at the best of times, and not exactly easy to smuggle around.

"I once had a brother.  His name was Innocent.  He was a very special person and he was my best friend."

This is a great book.  Read it when you're feeling strong.

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