How Fast Can You Run by Harriet Levin Millan

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Why do the innocent suffer? The Book of Job is the unspoken model for South Sudanese Michael Majok Kuch, a “featured Lost Boy of Sudan in the PBS Documentary Dinka Diaries”, who is the main character of Harriet Levin Millan’s new non-fiction novel, How Fast Can You Run. This hybrid novel keeps silent about 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, 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 running “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.,” climaxing in a trial in 2006 in which he is falsely accused. 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!’

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’s landmark What Is The What (2006) and Charles Davis’s 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 Kuch’s biography evokes heroic characters in fairytales and in other narratives which seek to make horror manageable, like Pinocchio, Dorothy Gale, and Oliver Twist. Like them, Kuch gets rescued.

[Facing] a tributary of the Blue Nile… when he was five or six or seven years old, as he was now… 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, Majok is carried forward not only by the plot but by his character. The search for parents and home leads him to a happy ending. Majok grows up into Michael. He locates his siblings and becomes their protector. With consistent support along the way from organizations and individuals (like the novel’s author), he applies for high school and then college in Philadelphia. His benefits from his natural abilities, his extraordinary work ethic, and the kindness of strangers. He gets a menial job that turns into white collar data entry, and he prevails against all obstacles until he is falsely accused by a villainous classmate of sexual assault.

Harriet Levin Millan

Harriet Levin Millan

At this darkest point in the story, Michael has a why-have-you-forsaken-me moment. “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 expansive of water that will free them), the moment readers wait for appears. 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.

But 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.” 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 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.

Michael’s rescue involves fundraising by his supporters to raise money for a trip to Australia to 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. But neither Michael Majok Kuch nor his riven country can ever truly restore what was lost. What we have, instead, is an unforgettable individual portrait of an all-too-impersonal war. How Fast Can You Run is an eye-opening experience, awakening empathy for a wider world.

In 2009, L.S. Bassen was the winner of the Atlantic Pacific Press Drama Prize. She has won a Mary Roberts Rinehart Fellowship, and over two decades has been published (poetry/fiction) in many lit magazines and zines. Recently moved from NYC to RI. She is a prizewinning, produced, and published playwright, and commissioned co-author of a WWII memoir by the Scottish bride of Baron Kawasaki. More from this author →