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How Fast Can You Run by Harriet Levin Millan

How Fast Can You Run by Harriet Levin Millan

Harvard Square Editions, October 28, 2016
Release date: October 28, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-941861-20-2
Paperback, 351 pp., $22.95
Review by L. Shapley Bassen

Why do the innocent suffer? In the chapter about the Book of Job, titled “Confrontation,” the main character of Jack Miles’ 1996 Pulitzer Prize-winning God: A Biography is described as a fiend. In utter contrast to familiar Judeo-Christian/Muslim (where Job is Aiyub) understanding, when Job acknowledges God’s superiority (“Now my eye sees thee,” 42:5), Miles says it wasn’t abject humility but canny irony Job is expressing, as in, “Now I get it. I can’t believe in a just God, just an omnipotent one.” What Job suffers cannot be compensated by divine dialogue or new children born to replace dead sons and daughters, plus house, wealth, etc. Miles adds that after the Book of Job, acknowledging Job’s moral victory, the shamed Old Testament God never speaks aloud again.

But the more familiar Job appears the unspoken model for South Sudanese Michael Majok Kuch, a “featured Lost Boy of Sudan in the PBS Documentary Dinka Diaries” (according to the back cover), who is the main character of Harriet Levin Millan’s new documentary novel, How Fast Can You Run. This hybrid fictionalized memoir/nonfiction novel keeps entirely silent Job’s challenge to God except for the voice of Kuch’s mother: “Who would allow a child with milk teeth in his mouth to die in a war?”

In the preface, Michael Majok Kuch explains, “This book bears witness to my childhood experience…[that] War interrupted.” It tells the story of his running at his mother’s command when their village was attacked and then “all over East Africa…to refugee and IDP camps, where I lived for ten years, and my immigration to America.” He met the author in his senior year in college in Philadelphia, where she interviewed him with her students at Drexel University. Kuch says, “I felt that a newspaper article could not convey all that I wanted to share. Besides my experiences in Africa, I wanted to share my experiences in the U.S.,” which climaxed in a false accusation trial in 2006. For several years, the author and subject met often and became profound friends. Together with others, “we started The Reunion Project with the mission of uniting Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan with their mothers living abroad.”

Harriet Levin Millan adds,

This novel began with the second Sudanese Civil War [1988]… The book is based on real historical events. While many of the events capture Michael’s experience exactly as he told them to me over a three-year period, some time sequences were altered to make the narrative more compelling… Some of the characters have been changed. All the names are fictitious except for Michael’s and his mother’s.

The first words of the novel set the place and pace:

Loud booming woke him. He thought it was elephants and opened his eyes. The hut was pitch-black… He was just a tiny boy, about five years old, afraid of scorpions nesting in the roof grass, snakes slithering through cracks and crocodiles scurrying up shallows… His mother rushed toward him, holding his baby brother in her arms, shouting, ‘Kare! Run!’

Majok (later called Michael) doesn’t stop running until he’s called to take the stand in his trial at the end of the novel. “Once again, events were changing the course of his life. His path was being diverted, but this time he was going to stay, here in full view of everyone. This time he would not run.”

The years between are a chronicle familiar to readers of Dave Eggers’ 2006 landmark, What Is the What and Charles Davis’ excellent Standing at the Crossroads (2011). Those American and British ghostwriters voiced harrowing but hopeful stories of the Sudanese civil wars just as Harriet Levin Millan does in How Fast Can You Run. The suffering of innocents is well-accommodated by both modern documentary fiction and fairytale, so much so that Michael Majok Kuch’s biography evokes heroic characters that critic Northrop Frye writes about, in fairytales and in other narratives that seek to make horror manageable, like Pinocchio, Dorothy Gale, and Oliver Twist, more than any of the characters in the nonfiction novel’s exemplar, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, where no one is rescued.

But Michael Majok Kuch is.

[Facing] a tributary of the Blue Nile…when he was five or six or seven years old…Majok stood on the sand bank, immobile. The river roared wild with current. Besides its imposing width, it was scattered with large rocks. He watched as the rocks seemed to rise then glide forward. ‘Crocodiles, Crocodiles!’ people screamed… Along with many of the boys, some…ostriches did not get away from the shelling in time. Shrieking, they fell on their backs or wings… Soldiers shoved [dugouts] into the water. Amid flying bullets, boys ducked low to board the canoes. The boats filled up fast.

But Majok’s friend, Spirit, wouldn’t get into one. “Now the only way to get across the river was to swim,” but a protective “soldier picked him up and carried him onto a canoe… Bullets kept flying… There was no talking, no asking for Spirit… He could feel the canoe’s flank brush up against the bodies of the crocodiles, swerving to avoid their snapping jaws and spiny tails.”

Like Oliver and Dorothy, not only the plot, but also Majok’s character moves him forward. The search for parents and home leads them all to happy endings. Majok grows up into Michael, found as another one of Sudan’s Lost Boys. He locates siblings and becomes their protector. With consistent support along the way from organizations and individuals (like the book’s author), he applies for high school and then college in Philadelphia. His natural abilities, extraordinary work ethic, and the kindness of strangers result in success. He is invited and advised as a public speaker, gets a menial job that turns into white collar data entry, and prevails against all obstacles until he is falsely accused by a villainous classmate of sexual assault.

At this dark point in the plot, Michael has a why-have-you-forsaken-me moment without which heroism would not be human. “Leave me alone,” he tells his brother. “I’ve been thrown out of school. I can’t play soccer. I kept myself going because I believed that Mama and Baba were still alive, but I see now my folly. They are dead and no one can bring them back. It’s the worst year of my life.” Then like an aerial movie camera pulling back (the scene in The African Queen when Bogart and Hepburn are trapped in weeds inches from the expanse of water that will free them), the moment readers wait for appears before them. Because of his scheduled trial, Michael’s name appears “on a list of potential deportees” that is seen by his parents in Africa. In this dramatic Passion hour, after seventeen years of separation and presumed death, Michael receives a letter from his mother.

Then (August, 2006), before the reader can sigh in relief, our hero must suffer yet again. “The trial took two days… Mike’s witnesses were called to the stand,” including his older brother and younger sister who had come to live with him. His accuser takes the stand in a “leopard-skin skirt,” but she eventually “sat down, slouching in her chair, her neck hugging the chair back, until she slumped forward and her head hit her knees.” In contrast to Job’s accusers, witnesses at Michael’s trial proclaim his heroic innocence, and his defense lawyer says, “This case didn’t just come to me by chance. This is a case I’ve been waiting for.”

His sister Rebekka testifies, “Mike is a hero… I learned from him what faith is.” Finally, his brother speaks,

I am my father’s first-born son… Mike is second, born only months apart. Our father had four wives. This is the way of Dinka people. Mike and I are each first-born sons. My siblings and I got separated in the war. I believed they were dead… Who would be the head of our family? I searched my heart and found there one answer. Mike… He would walk barefoot through desert wilderness without water… Here in this country, he supports our family with having two jobs, even as an A student and star athlete. Always putting everyone else first. Never himself.

The New York Times review of God: A Biography by Jack Miles concludes, “The outcome brings about repentance—not of Job, for he has done no wrong, but of God, who restores good fortune to Job,” as it is restored to the novel’s hero.

At the end, Mr. Miles ponders why the life of the Lord God begins in activity and speech only to close in passivity and silence. Does God’s desire for self-knowledge…carry the potential for tragedy? Surely the confrontation staged in Job brings God near that reality. But God is rescued. The Song of Solomon changes the subject, thereby sparing the life of God, and subsequent books give Him a different life.

Michael’s rescue in the denouement of Millan’s novel includes fundraising by his supporters to raise money for a trip to Australia so he can finally see his mother again. There, his two younger brothers emerge from the house together, and “Sobbing, [his mother] reached him, pressed her head to his chest and clutched his body to hers, under a foreign sky…in a country, which his hundred generations of ancestors did not even know existed.”

Generosity and justice prevail in the storytelling. But there is too much bitterness in the Job narrative ever to emerge unquestioning from any of its incarnations. Whatever good fortune justly deserved by Michael Majok Kuch and his riven country (the book jacket says, “He currently lives in Juba, South Sudan, where he works as a Research and Policy advisor in the Office of the President”), neither can ever find truly restored what was lost. What has been found, instead, is an unforgettable individual portrait of all-too-impersonal war. A book like How Fast Can You Run is an eye-opening experience, awakening empathy for a much wider world. Now I see news reports like these recent ones: in May, “There were some 130,000 elephants in Sudan 25 years ago, while now there may be only 5,000 in Sudan and the country that broke off from it, South Sudan.” In June, the headline: “Dispute over Area’s Status Heightens Suffering in South Sudan.” And in July, “Factional Fighting Breaks Out in South Sudan’s Capital.” The rest is, sadly, never silence.

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