Tracy Kidder: Non-fiction Rock Star
Oh, the terrible disappointment when you pick up a second book from an author who astounded you with the first one. It so rarely measures up.
But then there is Tracy Kidder–slowly working himself to rock star status.
(A long way behind Philip Roth, of course, but impressive.)
Boy, do I have a non-fiction two-fer for you.
Tracy Kidder blew me away, with Mountains Beyond Mountains.
It was my Mom’s recommendation–and she simply described it was about an amazing Harvard Doctor treating infectious diseases in Haiti.
It was anything but.
Tracy Kidder interviewed, followed, and travelled with the inspiring and unsatisfied Paul Farmer as he single handedly tried to tackle the inequality of health in Haiti. How does Farmer do it? “He works nonstop, hardly sleeps, sees his wife and child for a day or so every few months, inspires an uncommon degree of devotion and enthusiasm among collaborators and potential donors, and tolerates planes and airports for days on end.”
Now Kidder brings us The Strength in What Remains, sharing the life of Deogratis, a young man from Burundi in Africa. (Think neighbor to Rwanda, think genocide, think Tutsi). There is a small link with Mountains, as Kidder met Deo while following Farmer–and Farmer gave Deo a job at his Partners in Health organization. But the connection is acknowledged and fleeting.
The story takes us quickly through the 6-8 months that Deo is trying desperately to escape Burundi and the ethnic madness that ensues there. He is a third year medical student in his home country, intelligent and likable, but when we meet him in New York City, he has $200, a $12/day job, he sleeps in Central Park and doesn’t speak the language. Kidder asks: “How would one survive?”
Survive he does–from luck, perseverance and the charity of others. Attends Columbia University and Dartmouth Medical School. Journeys back to Burundi to establish a medical presence much in the spirit of Paul Farmer. And while he is there, Kidder helps us to relive the terror Deo endured in his country. He is just one story in the historic recounting Kidder gives us of what transpired in Rwanda and Burundi.
As Kurt said in this post about What is the What (a story which is first, excellent and second, shares a tremendous amount with the books described here): “life is not fair, so those of us who have it easy should take on the hard problems.” The Strength in What Remains reminds us of how good we have it, how gratitude is something we should show more of every day and how resilient and remarkable is the human spirit to survive. It’s humbling.
Read this book.
The NYT gushes about this book.
I do too.