Tracy Kidder has won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and Robert F. Kennedy Award. He is a wonderful writer, telling extraordinary stories of so-called ordinary people, such as nursing home residents (“Old Friends”), people living in a small town (Home Town), soldiers in fighting in Vietnam (“My Detachment”) and a classroom of young students (“Among Schoolchildren”).
His newest book, “Strength in What Remains” tells the true story of Deogratias, a refugee from war-torn Burundi who ends up in New York City.
Deo was a young man studying to become a doctor in his home country of Burundi, located near Rwanda in Africa. His family worked hard to stay ahead of the crushing poverty that was always present. Food had to be carried miles from its growing place back to the family home, a 14-hour trip by foot that Deo made weekly - without shoes.
One day, Deo crossed paths with an elderly woman who thought that he had called her a Hutu. Deo did not know what that meant, but he knew it was bad from the angry reaction of the woman.
Some time later, he heard the term Tutsi at school. He asked his father what they were, and his father told him Tutsi, and not to talk about it anymore.
When Deo was a medical student, civil war broke out in Burundi. The Hutu majority began to slaughter the Tutsi minority in a most bloody, violent uprising. Deo was at a hospital when a mob appeared and began to kill anyone they believed to be Tutsi. He hid under a bed and managed to escape.
His recollection of running and hiding to escape the genocide inside his country is harrowing. Attempting to cross a river, he sees dozens of dead bodies floating past. In the distance, he hears the screams of people being chased down and murdered by those who used to live peaceably side by side with them.
The most heartbreaking story involves Deo, who while running for life, comes upon a murdered woman holding a barely alive baby.
He locks eyes with the baby and has to decide what to do. The vision of that baby haunts him for years.
Deo miraculously survives, eventually making it to the border of Rwanda. A Hutu woman refugee finds him, and brings him along with her to cross the border. When Deo is thought to be a Tutsi, this woman claims him as her son and he makes it across the border.
Eventually, Deo manages to flee to New York City. He is in a country where he doesn't know the language, has little money, is in poor health. He lives with other Africans in a squatters' apartment in Harlem, until he finds it too dangerous and decides to sleep under bushes in Central Park.
He gets a job working as a grocery delivery man, where he is paid $15 a day and whatever tips he is able to get, which are shamefully few. He works on the Upper East Side, an area in New York where many wealthy people live. The contrast of Deo's lifestyle with the lives of the people he delivers to is shocking: unbelievable wealth living side by side with soul crushing poverty.
While delivering groceries, Deo meets a woman who works in a Catholic church rectory. She takes Deo under her wing, getting him to a doctor, and when she finds that he is homeless, she tirelessly works to find him a home.
She convinces a childless couple to take him in. Deo wishes to become a doctor and through the help of others, enrolls in college. He overcomes a language barrier and after some setbacks, succeeds.
Deo has nightmares of his experiences fleeing the genocide in his country, but he has yet to tell anyone the full story of the horrors he endured. He hears Dr. Paul Farmer from Partners in Health (an organization that works on providing health care in poor countries) speak, and it stirs something in him.
He meets Dr. Farmer and volunteers for Partners in Health. Dr. Farmer befriends Deo, and slowly Deo tells him the entire story of what happened to him in Burundi.
Deo wishes to go back to his country to build a clinic, which he believes will prevent not only disease, but other problems.
Deo distilled the PIH message this way: “By all means, let's do prevention! Prevent people from suffering! Don't wait for people to feel like their lives are not worth living. Once they feel that way, how are they going to feel about another person's life?”
I have always questioned how people could hate so much that genocides exist, and Deo's words answer that question. If you feel that your own life is not valued, it is hard to value the lives of others.
Deo's story is fascinating, and Kidder tells it in his usual remarkable style. In this book, Kidder shows us the worst of humanity (genocide, poverty, the people who took advantage of Deo) and the best of humanity (Dr. Farmer's organization, the people who went out of their way to help Deo), and leaves it up to us to decide which side we will be on.
“Strength in What Remains” is compelling, thought-provoking reading, and I give it four and half stars.
Diane La Rue is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her lifelong goal is to read one book per week; she submits reviews monthly for The Citizen. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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