Saturday, November 7, 2009

Book Review: Strength in What Remains

Tracy Kidder came to speak at the University of Minnesota about two years ago, while he was working on this book. He's a wonderful speaker, a very personable guy, and as I drove him to and from his radio interview with MPR, he told me he was working on this book about a Burundian refugee. One of the challenges he was running into, he explained, was that he did not speak French. I do speak French, and I worked part-time in refugee resettlement at the time. If I had not also been in graduate school, or if I had been less attached to finishing by the planned date, I would have followed my instinct to beg him to hire me on as an intern/researcher/translator. Alas, alas. Not that he would have necessarily taken me up on the offer. And, clearly, he did fine with out me.

Strength in What Remains, the final product, received the kind of New York Times review that writers dream of. It was a rave, and it was deserved. The book, particularly the first half, is hard to put down, as we follow Deogratis on his flight out of chaotic Burundi and into New York on a false business visa. He arrives with $200, little English, and no connections...and winds up homeless. Kidder artfully moves us between the despair of that situation--poor in a wealthy country--with the Tutsi genocide that erupted in Burundi 6 months before neighboring Rwanda. Why have we never learned of that? We read knowing that Deo, who was a third-year medical student in Burundi when the world fell apart, eventually does make it medical school (after first repeating his undergrad)...eventually heals and returns to his country to build a medical clinic in a remote area of his country. We read, wanting him to make it, unsure how it would be possible, yet of course this is a true story.

Kidder's storytelling is deft and moving. In the first section, Kidder stays out of the story entirely (after the prologue), allowing us to walk alongside Deo. In the second section, he reappears, and we see him revisiting with Deo all of those places where he almost didn't make it--Harlem tenaments, Central Park, Burundi--as well as the places that turned his life around: the home of the American couple who took him in, Columbia University, Partners-in-Health. It's impressive that we readers have nostalgia for these places, having only spent 100 pages there, though it comes close to being repetitive. But, Kidder has a reason, and we need to see much of that to feel the full weight of the final chapters, to understand how far, with loving help, a person could come.

Highly recommended.

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