Book Review: 'Strength in What Remains' by Tracy Kidder

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By Marie Arana
Sunday, August 30, 2009


By Tracy Kidder

Random House. 277 pp. $26

In the summer of 2005, a villager walked into a district hospital in Rwanda complaining of abdominal pain. The cause was not difficult to diagnose: an acutely enlarged spleen resulting from untreated malaria. But the American doctors were unable to identify a series of angry rings, scored deep into the skin, that covered the patient's distended belly.

A medical student from Burundi recognized them at once: They were burns. Someone, possibly even a parent, had heated a metal pipe over a fire and pressed its red-hot tip into the very part of the body that hurt the most. "Distracting pain with pain," the young doctor called it -- a common practice among the people of Rwanda and Burundi, who know a good deal about agony and affliction.

That young medical student is the subject of Tracy Kidder's extraordinarily stirring new book, "Strength in What Remains"; and the gruesome business of numbing pain with pain is nothing less than a metaphor for the genocide that swept through Burundi and Rwanda in 1994, killing or displacing millions who had already suffered all the miseries of the damned.

The story of Deogratias, a 22-year-old who boarded a plane in Bujumbura at the peak of the violence and emerged, many stops later -- alone, disoriented and ill-prepared -- on the streets of New York City, is as harrowing an account of human suffering as you will ever read. But it is also a miracle of human courage. In it, a man rises against all odds to achieve his highest aspirations and help countless others along the way.

His road to success is hardly easy. The youth whom we first meet on Harlem's Malcolm X Boulevard in 1994 speaks no English. He is tormented by memories of brutality that beggar the imagination. He fears his family is dead. He would rather sleep under a bush in Central Park than in a drug-infested, abandoned tenement. When Deo finally finds work, it is for little more than a dollar an hour, carting groceries to the rich from the well-stocked storerooms of a tony Manhattan market. Perhaps because of his strikingly open face, perhaps because of his winning smile, he is taken in and helped -- first by a former nun with a persistent nature, then by a married couple committed to assisting students in need.

Kidder, most famously the author of "The Soul of a New Machine" and, more recently, "Mountains Beyond Mountains" and "My Detachment," is a veteran of the dramatic narrative, and the real story he spins out here -- raveling it little by little, alongside the rags-to-riches one -- is a man's terrible memory of war. As Kidder describes Deo's flight through the ravaged countryside, we get fleeting glimpses into the inferno: a dead family sprawled on the floor of a hut, a mother's mouth stuffed with a dismembered penis, a baby sucking at a cadaver's breast, a militiaman tossing a child into the campfire. "It was impossible to plan," Kidder writes, "because he never knew where the dangers lay until he got close to them. The signs were obvious by now. Rising smoke meant burning houses up ahead, and wheeling birds a place full of corpses. Swarms of flies meant killings nearby. Sometimes he saw a dog trotting past with a severed head or an arm in its mouth."

It's certainly not the first time we've heard heartbreaking accounts of the civil wars in Africa. But there is a touching intimacy about Deogratias's tale, and it forces us to look hard at the baffling history of the region. There have been so many wrong assertions about the area's ethnicities. According to Kidder, there is little discernible difference between the Hutus and Tutsis. They speak the same language, practice the same religions, share the same tastes in food. More to the point: They intermarry, making it difficult to tell them apart.

Contrary to popular belief, the Hutu and Tutsi thought of themselves as two before the colonizers arrived. But they understood the separation as being within a single people: The Tutsis were lords, the Hutus their subjects. The Europeans cemented the rift and called it a racial difference. The Tutsis, they insisted, had Caucasian ancestors, the Hutus did not.

But the colonizers were gone when the large-scale killing began. It started just after independence, as the Hutus and Tutsis fought one another for control. By the mid 1960s, hundreds of thousands were fleeing Rwanda in a panic. The violence spread to Burundi, where massacres broke out in 1972, and then again in 1988. An uneasy peace resumed, until 1994, when a cabal of Tutsi soldiers assassinated the Hutu president of Burundi. Almost immediately, Hutus began killing Tutsis. Deo, a Tutsi, was working as an intern in a rural hospital at the time. Thinking he would escape the frenzy, he slipped over the border to Rwanda, but there the killing was even worse. By the time it was over, 800,000 people were dead and more than 2 million were homeless. In a region already ravaged by poverty and hunger, the victims were distracting pain with pain.

Kidder by no means tells a seamless story. He lurches recklessly between Africa and New York and from past to present, fragmenting the natural suspense. He quotes Deo too frequently in the early stages of language-learning, rendering him childish, even dim, when he is far from either. Kidder tells us too little and then too much, glossing over material he knows better than we do and then over-explaining things we know perfectly well. He inserts himself into the narrative and indulges in inane asides. But for all these 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.

"Everyone has bad dreams," Kidder writes as he nears the close of this inspirational story. Indeed, Deo is still besieged by bad dreams, unable to free himself from specters that never seem far from mind: A farmer picks up a machete, a spear points toward a child's eye. Unlike the rest of us who have learned how to dismiss nightmares, he awakes knowing those terrible images are real.

Marie Arana is a writer at large for The Washington Post. She can be reached at

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