Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder

You do not survive genocide without a little help at critical moments from people who are supposed to be your enemies. Likewise, you do not build a better world without in turn serving people who are supposed to be your enemies. Thus you might sum up the life of Deogratias, a medical student and Tutsi from Burundi who fled his country in 1994. Tracy Kidder tells Deo's story in Strength in What Remains.

Kidder divides his book into two parts. The first describes Deo's childhood, flight from Burundi, and time of homelessness in New York City. In each of these periods in his life, Deo could easily have died without the help of strangers. The most dangerous time, of course, was the half a year that he spent hiding in the jungle and refugee camps of Rwanda and Burundi, but living in abandoned buildings of New York with the gangs in open warfare in the streets below may have distressed him more. America was supposed to be paradise. He found living in Central Park more to his liking.

The second part is about Kidder getting to know Deo, who is by this time a graduate of Columbia University and a medical student at Dartmouth University. Deo has gone through stages in which he wants to tell his story to all the world but then he wants to block any painful memoirs. Despite many warnings, he begins to take trips back to his homeland with the goal of building a free medical clinic. Kidder later accompanies Deo to places that are still quite dangerous.

Strength in What Remains continues Kidder's efforts to write about remarkable people addressing the world's seemingly insurmountable problems. His picture of Deo is admiring without canonizing the young immigrant, who at times seems reckless and vacillates between optimism and depression. For readers who may not even remember Burundi's long war, the book is a reminder that American media has a very short attention span outside our borders unless American military forces are involved. Strength in What Remains is compelling reading.

Kidder, Tracy. Strength in What Remains. Random House, 2009. ISBN 9781400066216

Extra thoughts:

This passage on page 144 about the city of Bujumbura jumped out at me:
... "I don't know anything about coffee," said Deo. The little library he liked was still open. Deo spent the better part of a week there, reading about coffee beans.

Through months of violence and disorder, someone kept a public library together and open. Deo later spends much time in the New York Public Library and the libraries at Columbia and Dartmouth universities.

1 comment:

Citizen Reader said...

I LOVE Tracy Kidder, and he did not disappoint in this book. He's very skilled at finding fascinating people to profile, I find, and I appreciate that. (Especially in this era of celebrity bios and memoirs!)