four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
43-Nov-Dec-2009
By: 
Tracy Kidder
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A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness

A-Strength in What RemainsTracy Kidder, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Soul of a New Machine (1981), was researching Partners in Health, the organization created by Dr. Paul Farmer to eradicate preventable disease in Third World countries, for his book Mountains Beyond Mountains when he met a young African refugee with a shocking and uplifting story. This young man, known only as Deogratias ("Thanks Be to God" in Latin), is the subject of Kidder’s latest work. Recently reviewed My Detachment ( 3 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2005).

The Topic: The son of a poor Tutsi farmer in Burundi, third-year medical student Deogratias barely escapes the carnage when genocidal conflict between Hutus and Tutsis spreads from neighboring Rwanda in 1993. He flees to the United States with the help of a wealthy friend, but what he finds is a far cry from the American Dream. With only $200 in his pocket and little knowledge of English, Deo takes a menial job delivering groceries on Park Avenue for $15 per day and sleeps in Central Park at night. He is unexpectedly taken in by a generous couple and finishes college and medical school, but, dually haunted and motivated by the violence he left behind, Deo joins Partners in Health and courageously returns to Burundi to establish a free clinic.
Random House. 277 pages. $25. ISBN 9781400066216

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4.5 of 5 Stars
"This seemingly impossible journey from nightmare to American Dream, from the killing fields of central Africa in the mid-1990s to the privileged halls of academia, is at the heart of an inspiring story told by Kidder, one of the masters of narrative journalism. … Kidder’s account of Deo’s escape on foot from the machete-wielding Hutus is as exciting and disturbing a piece of writing as one will ever encounter—in any genre." Stephen J. Lyons

NY Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"That 63-year-old Tracy Kidder may have just written his finest work—indeed, one of the truly stunning books I’ve read this year—is proof that the secret to memorable nonfiction is so often the writer’s readiness to be surprised. … Kidder’s rendering of what Deo endured and survived just before he boarded that plane for New York is one of the most powerful passages of modern nonfiction." Ron Suskind

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Kidder tells Deo’s story with characteristic skill and sensitivity in a complex narrative that moves back and forth through time to build a richly layered portrait. … Kidder’s abiding preoccupation is the everyday heroism of ordinary people, and his latest is rife with such unsung heroes, such as the anonymous Hutu woman who saved Deo’s life by pretending to be his mother in order to smuggle him out of the country." Daniel Akst

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"As it moves along—the grisly past is a backdrop but ever-present in the way it shapes Deo’s life—Strength in What Remains builds in magnitude and poignancy. It is moving without being uplifting, because Kidder has the intelligence to avoid any hint of the saccharine within its pages. Hard and unanswerable questions are posed, after all." Art Winslow

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[An] African medical student’s story of struggle, redemption and return, a narrative infused with a broad, universal appeal and occasional touches of brilliance. … [Deo’s] story reaffirms our hope that one person can make a difference." Bharti Kirchner

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Kidder by no means tells a seamless story. … But [despite] flaws, the sheer power of Deo’s story shines through. We cannot help but be in awe of this gentle cicerone who survives war’s ghastly labyrinth to emerge a better man." Marie Arana

Miami Herald 2.5 of 5 Stars
"A deeply felt yet deeply flawed book. … Deo never feels real; he comes across less as a person than a symbol in Kidder’s moral quest." Susan Comninos

Critical Summary

Saluted as "a high priest of the narrative arts" (New York Times Book Review) and "a master of creative nonfiction" (Dallas Morning News), Kidder has written an unforgettable tribute to the resilience of the human spirit. Riveting, sad, terrible, but ultimately optimistic, Kidder’s harrowing descriptions of Central Africa’s bloody ethnic hostilities and Deo’s amazing survival have been hailed by critics as some of the finest writing in contemporary nonfiction. The Washington Post objected to Kidder’s frequent narrative jumps, while the Miami Herald remained unconvinced by Deo’s saintly virtues. However, the Minneapolis Star Tribune hailed Strength "an instant classic," and most critics agreed. "Let’s put this tragedy behind us," says Deo, "because remembering is not going to benefit anyone." Readers will surely beg to differ.

Also by the Author

Mountains Beyond Mountains The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World (2003): Kidder’s engrossing biography of physician and anthropologist Paul Farmer explores his passion and drive to alleviate suffering in some of the poorest places on earth.

Reading Guide

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.

1. Tracy Kidder gets his title, Strength in What Remains, from a poem by William Wordsworth; the passage is included at the beginning of the book. What did the poem mean to you before reading Strength in What Remains? Did the meaning of the poem change after you read the book? If so, how?

2. While making his escape to the United States, Deo views New York as a land of promise and opportunity. But when he is first in New York, living in Harlem and then Central Park, he feels lonelier than ever before. He thinks, “It was clear that to be a New Yorker could mean so many things that it meant practically nothing at all” (p. 32). What does he mean by this? How does his opinion of New York— and thus the United States— change over the course of the book?

3. Deo realizes that he is in the “bottom to that near- bottom” (p. 22) of the social hierarchy in New York, yet he makes certain that no one observes him entering Central Park at a late hour, as he does not want to be labeled homeless. What do these two facts, along with his initial struggles to adjust to and learn about urban American life, tell you about Deo’s character? Can you imagine yourself feeling as he does or do you think his reaction is simply “Burundian”?

4. Kidder writes, “When Deo first told me about his beginnings in New York, I had a simple thought: ‘I would not have survived’ ” (p. 161). Do you think you could have survived what Deo survived? Why or why not?

5. How do Deo’s experiences on the run in Burundi compare to his experiences in New York City? What are the common themes? How do the dangers differ? How does human compassion figure in these two journeys?

6. From the moment Deo arrives in New York, he finds people who are willing to help him. Discuss the ways in which Muhammad the baggage handler, Sharon, Nancy and Charlie, and James O’Malley helped Deo get on his feet. What do you think it was about Deo that compelled these people to help him? What was it about them? Would he have survived without them?

7. Paul Farmer is another person who has had a large influence on Deo. Describe Deo’s relationship with Farmer and the ways in which they change each other’s lives.

8. While a student at Columbia, Deo recalls that in Burundi, he “had seen people pushed away from hospitals, not only when they had no money, but sometimes just because they were dirty and smelled bad. Now news that a relative was ill would keep him worrying for days, imagining that his mother or a sibling might even now be receiving such treatment” (p. 109). What does this statement tell you about Deo’s thoughts and goals while studying biochemistry at Columbia? Why do you think Deo maintained this perspective? How does this sentiment complement, reflect, or contrast with the views and concerns of Paul Farmer or of Partners in Health?

9. While Deo is working with Farmer and Joia Mukherjee at Partners in Health in Boston, Joia remarks, “Offensive things are so offensive to him. Understandably. It’s just like he has no skin. Everything just penetrates so much” (p. 156). What does Joia mean by this? Do her words ring true?

10. Throughout his life, Deo struggles to trust himself, other people, and even God. As he tours Columbia with Kidder in 2006, he says, “I do believe in God. I think God has given so much power to people, and intelligence, and said, ‘Well, you are on your own. Maybe I’m tired, I need a nap. You are mature. Why don’t you look after yourselves?’ And I think he’s been sleeping too much” (p. 186). Discuss this quote in relation to Deo’s views on faith.

11. The power of memory is a theme that runs throughout the book. In the Introduction, Deo explains that people in the Western world try to remember the tragedies of their pasts, while people in Burundi try to forget them. Trace Deo’s evolution as he journeys from Burundi to Rwanda to the United States and back again, focusing on the changing role memory plays in his life.

12. Joia makes an interesting point about how different people deal with horrible experiences like genocide. Her own father, having survived massacres during the partition of India, refused to talk about what he saw. Instead, he lived a life of hypochondria, always fearing that death was just around the corner. Deo eventually “let it spew out all the time” (p. 157), while an Auschwitz survivor Kidder meets also chose silence until he reached old age. The survivor tells Kidder, “The problem is, once you start talking it’s very difficult to stop. It’s almost impossible to stop” (p. 160). Discuss the values and weaknesses of each coping strategy. Do you think we have control over how we process our memories and guilt?

13. Toward the end of the book, as Kidder reflects on what he has seen and learned through Deo, he thinks about the value of “flush[ing] out and dissect[ing] one’s memories” (as Westerners are prone to do) and wonders whether there is such a thing as “too much remembering, that too much of it could suffocate a person, and indeed a culture” (p. 248). After reading Deo’s story, what do you think? Do you agree that “there was something to be said for a culture with a word like gusimbura” (p. 248)? Why or why not?

14. In Burundi, village elders would say, “When too much is too much or too bad is too bad, we laugh as if it was too good” (p. 36). What does this saying mean? How can it be applied to Deo’s upbringing? How does its meaning affect Deo’s views, particularly toward American life?

15. Deo relates that in Burundi, people’s names tell stories, or serve as social commentary about the circumstances of the person’s birth or social position. These names, he says, are amazina y’ikuzo, “names for growth” (p. 34). Why is this concept so important in Burundian society? Are the names of the Burundian individuals to whom Kidder introduces us accurate?

16. Against his family’s wishes, Deo returns to Burundi often after his initial escape. Why does he go back so many times? Discuss the relationship he has with the people of his country, and why he tells Kidder that no matter how tempting, he cannot “reject all the obli - gations of family, and even of affection, and . . . become a loner in the world, never setting foot in one’s old life” (p. 208).

17. When Deo was first in New York, Kidder writes, “He told himself, ‘No one is in control of his own life’ ” (p. 164). Do you believe no one is in control of his own life? Do you think Deo believes it, at the end of Kidder’s book?

18. Deo accomplishes the seemingly impossible, working with Paul Farmer and Partners in Health to set up his dream clinic in Kigutu in 2008. The clinic has become “a place of reconciliation for everyone, including [Deo].” As he tells a woman who comes to the clinic and apologizes to him for what he assumes is violence against his family during the war: “What happened happened. Let’s work on the clinic. Lets put this tragedy behind us, because remembering is not going to benefit anyone” (p. 259). How does Deo reach this point in his life? What do you think is next for him?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Random House. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.