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Strength in What Remains (Random House Reader's Circle) Paperback – May 4, 2010
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Amazon Best of the Month, September 2009: Strength in What Remains is an unlikely story about an unreasonable man. Deo was a young medical student who fled the genocidal civil war in Burundi in 1994 for the uncertainty of New York City. Against absurd odds--he arrived with little money and less English and slept in Central Park while delivering groceries for starvation wages--his own ambition and a few kind New Yorkers led him to Columbia University and, beyond that, to medical school and American citizenship. That his rise followed a familiar immigrant's path to success doesn't make it any less remarkable, but what gives Deo's story its particular power is that becoming an American citizen did not erase his connection to Burundi, in either his memory or his dreams for the future. Writing with the same modest but dogged empathy that made his recent Mountains Beyond Mountains (about Deo's colleague and mentor, Dr. Paul Farmer) a modern classic, Tracy Kidder follows Deo back to Burundi, where he recalls the horrors of his narrow escape from the war and begins to build a medical clinic where none had been before. Deo's terrible journey makes his story a hard one to tell; his tirelessly hopeful but clear-eyed efforts make it a gripping and inspiring one to read. --Tom Nissley
Amazon Exclusive: Tracy Kidder on Strength in What Remains
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 an alternate Paperback edition.
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. With an anthropologist's eye and a novelist's pen, Pulitzer Prize–winning Kidder (Mountains Beyond Mountains) recounts the story of Deo, the Burundian former medical student turned American émigré at the center of this strikingly vivid story. Told in flashbacks from Deo's 2006 return visit to Burundi to mid-1990s New York and the Burundi of childhood memory and young adulthood—as the Rwandan genocide spilled across the border following the same inflamed ethnic divisions—then picking up in 2003, when author and subject first meet, Deo's experience is conveyed with a remarkable depth of vision and feeling. Kidder renders his subject with deep yet unfussy fidelity and the conflict with detail and nuance. While the book might recall Dave Eggers's novelized version of a real-life Sudanese refugee's experience in What Is the What, reading this book hardly covers old ground, but enables one to walk in the footsteps of its singular subject and see worlds new and old afresh. This profoundly gripping, hopeful and crucial testament is a work of the utmost skill, sympathy and moral clarity. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
Throughout his introduction to urban America, Deo remains optimistic and hopeful. The book flashes back and forth among Deo's early life as a barefoot cow-herder; then as a medical student under primitive conditions, forced to escape and use his wits to avoid death; then as a newly-landed immigrant; then as an Ivy League student - all while on a return trip to his homeland with the author, Tracy Kidder. By then, Deo has become an American citizen fluent in English, and amassed a network of benefactors eager to help him fulfill a dream to create a medical clinic in Burundi near his original home.
This is a book that helps to explain the history of Rwanda and the lesser-known Burundi and how it led to the horrible genocide (the brutal killing of thousands upon thousands of Tutsis by Hutus). Mostly, however, it is the story of one generous, hopeful, man, who - to me - exemplifies the best of
the human spirit and, specifically, the strength of so many American immigrants. Deo is a hero in his own life .... He reminds us that everyone on earth has a "story" and it is worth it to each of us to discover our neighbors' stories. Deo is the sort of person whose story reminds us to "quit our belly-achin'" about trivial things!
This is an amazing though disturbing book. It tells the true story of a medical student, Deo, who escaped from the devastating civil war and genocide in Burundi and came to the United States. The author details the traumas he encounters both in his home country and as an immigrant who doesn’t speak English. The story is told with a number of flashbacks and flash forwards which give almost agonizing detail about his trials and his pain through all this. Deo is amazingly persistent and determined to complete his medical training and to help his people heal. Deo should inspire all of us to overcome our troubles and pursue difficult goals in life.
But then Kidder makes the questionable decision to write the second half of the book from his own perspective, as he tells the story of meeting Deo (the hero) and accompanying him on a return to Burundi. The immediacy of the first half is lost, as the emphasis is on Kidder's reactions (usually fear) rather than the complex emotions Deo experiences as he retraces his steps along a journey of sheer terror.
I would also like to have seen a Where Are They Now section, that tells us whether Deo's rural clinic was successful, whether he finally became a doctor, what happened to the amazing woman who picked him up off the streets of NYC and found him a home, etc.
On balance, this is definitely worth reading, though it's unfortunate the brilliance of the first half wasn't sustained until the end.