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Strength in What Remains (Random House Reader's Circle) Paperback – Gold CD, May 4, 2010
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Strength in What Remains is the story of Deogratias, a young man from the central African nation of Burundi. In 1993, through no fault of his own, he was forced onto a terrifying journey, a journey that split his life in two. First he made a six-months-long escape, on foot, from ethnic violence in Burundi and from genocide in Rwanda. Then, in a strange twist of fate, he was, as it were, transported to New York City, where it sometimes seemed that his travails had only just begun.
I met Deo by chance 6 years ago. When I first heard his story, I had one simple thought: I would not have survived. I hoped in part to reproduce that feeling as I retold his story. I also hoped to humanize what, to most westerners anyway, is a mysterious, little-known part of the world. We hear about mass slaughter in distant countries and we imagine that murder and mayhem define those locales. Deo’s story opens up one of those places into a comprehensible landscape—and also opens up a part of New York that is designed to be invisible, the service entrances of the upper East Side, the camping sites that homeless people use in Central Park. But above all, I think, this is a book about coming to terms with memories. How can a person deal with memories like Deo’s, tormenting memories, memories with a distinctly ungovernable quality?
In the first part of Strength In What Remains, I recount Deo’s story. In the second part, I tell about going back with him to the stations of his life, in New York and Burundi. So the story that I tell isn’t only about the memories that Deo related to me. It’s also about seeing him overtaken by memories—again and again, and sometimes acutely. But Deo didn’t take me to Burundi just to show me around. Giving me a tour of his past was incidental to what he was up to in the present and the future. His story has a denoument that even now amazes me.
Deo is an American citizen. He doesn’t have to go back to Burundi. But he has returned continually and keeps on returning, and, amid the postwar wreckage, with the help of friends and family, he has created a clinic and public health system, free to those who can’t pay, in a rural village—part of a beginning, Deo dreams, of a new Burundi.
This facility was a pile of rocks when I visited the site in the summer of 2006. By the fall of 2008, it had become a medical center with several new buildings, a trained professional staff, and a fully stocked pharmacy. In its first year of operation it treated 21,000 different patients. (The organization that Deo founded and that sponsors and operates this facility is called Village Health Works.)
Deo was very young when he went through his long travail. Several strangers helped to save him from death and despair in Burundi and New York. So did sheer courage and pluck, and also Columbia University, which he attended as an undergraduate. But when it’s come to dealing with the burden of his memories, the public health system and clinic that he founded has been the nearest thing to a solution. In the end, it’s neither forgetting the past nor dwelling on the past that has worked for him. For him the answer has been remembering and acting. I once asked Deo why he had studied philosophy at Columbia. He told me, "I wanted to understand what had happened to me." In the end, he received what most students of philosophy receive—not answers, but more questions. As I was trying to describe his effort to build a clinic, I found myself writing: "Deo had discovered a way to quiet the questions he’d been asking at Columbia. That is, he saw there might be an answer for what troubled him most about the world, an answer that lay in his hands, indeed in his memory. You had to do something."—Tracy Kidder
(Photo © Gabriel Amadeus Cooney)--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Publishers Weekly
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind; William Wordsworth
Rarely does an introductory quote capture the essence of a book as well as Tracy Kidder's choice of the above poem, and rarely does irony reach the intensity of genocide survivor Deogratias' name (Thanks be to God, in Latin).
The star rating system for books can be frustrating and misleading. Does a five star rating mean a new Jane Austen is on the loose? Does a four star rating mean a merely decent read? In the case of Kidder's Strength in What Remains Behind, my four star rating means a fascinating, thought-provoking, big-hit-with-your-book-club read. With serious books, and this is one, sometimes I get the sensation that I've put myself in harness, and in the effort to get the fruits of my labor I will be forced to trudge forward until the job is done. Strength in What Remains Behind is the opposite: once attached to the book by the first few pages, it will draw you wide-eyed and enthralled rapidly towards its conclusion.
Tracy Kidder's book, briefly, is the non-fiction tale of Deogratias. Raised in Burundi (neighbor to Rwanda), Deo lives a nearly idyllic life until the outbreak of ethnic violence in his country replaces Wordsworth's "of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower" with a living hell that makes Dante's Inferno look like a pleasant winter destination resort. Deo, a Tutsi third year medical student, flees Burundi, arriving at age 24 in New York City with $200 in his pocket, the clothes on his back, and his will to survive.Read more ›
Mr. Tracy, like John PcPhee and precious few others, is at the tiny top tier of journalistic authors of books, as opposed to articles of immediacy. Two years he spent listening to Deogratias tell his story and spent in other research. Years ago at the beginning of my technology career I read his "Soul of a New Machine", the story of the skunkworks of Data General Corp. at the dawn of mini-computers and client-server architecture. From then on I learned just to buy whatever he wrote. You teachers might start with his "Among Schoolchildren".
Mr. Kidder is the selfless writer. He does not choose topics to sell books. He has no ideological drum (or horse) to beat. He is not attracted to fads or celebrity, power or the rich. Those are left for the sycophantic, the mediocre, those unencumbered by talent and skill. He uses some sort of dowsing rod for profundity. He is also something of a phenomenologist, letting the truth bubble up from his uncompromising observation of people and circumstances. He does not editorialize or advocate. He does not pretend to understand more than he can show. But he introduces you to all the best people, besides his central figures, taking time to capture them fully.
In "Strength in what Remains, Mr.Read more ›
This is to some extent a sequel to Kidder's earier book Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World, about Dr. Paul Farmer and Partners in Health. Farmer is one of the people who Deo meets, and Deo begins working with PIH.
Kidder's writing is very vivid and immediate, and is told from Deo's point of view, so you feel as if you are traveling and experiencing all this with Deo. In particular you feel that he's not much better off as a homeless person in America than he was on the run in Africa, except that in America no one is trying to kill him.
On the other hand, because events are presented out of sequence, the vivid writing does not build much tension--the narrative starts in 2006 with Deo's return to Burundi, so we know that he has survived all the events that are detailed later and has prospered in his new country.
In Kidder's earlier book ...Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Incredible story. Heartbreaking to read about the genocide in Burundi.Published 3 days ago by Christian H.
this book is about a black dude running around africa selling tamales to become the ultimate druglord its greatPublished 11 days ago by uber driver xxl
Gripping biography by one of our country's greatest storytellers with much relevance to the current global refugee crisis.Published 4 months ago by Karen Ansara
Tracy Kidder has a gift. Most of us plunge through life intent on our own mini-dramas, glancing at headlines and maybe thinking “There’s more to that, if I had time,” before... Read morePublished 5 months ago by AYJ
I listened to the CD version of this incredible and unique book that takes readers (listeners) on a painful journey through the Burundi genocide. Read morePublished 6 months ago by Rebecca Leo, author of The Flaws That Bind