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Strength in What Remains

Tracy Kidder’s true story about a Tutsi medical student who fled to the US illustrates the power of forgiveness.

By Charles J. Shields / August 24, 2009



Tracy Kidder’s Strength in What Remains takes us into familiar and unfamiliar territory. In a previous book, “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” Kidder examined the life of physician and anthropologist Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health, an international health and social justice organization.

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Farmer attended to the medical needs of some of the world’s most underserved populations: slum dwellers in Peru, prisoners in Russia, and especially the rural poor of Haiti – a group that touched him particularly deeply.

Now Kidder returns to the theme of humanitarianism, but with a difference: Instead of documenting the work of a Harvard-educated physician and his efforts to ameliorate suffering, Kidder finds greatness in someone who has suffered, a refugee from Burundi – a Tutsi – named Deogratias. His story is about curing the body and redeeming the inner man as well.

Deogratis, whose name is a Latin phrase meaning “Thanks be to God,” was on the run when he came to the United States in 1994, posing as a coffee merchant. Actually, he was a medical student who had spent months traveling overland on foot to avoid being caught and killed by Hutu militias.

You will see the United States through different eyes as Deo tries to live in New York City. The degree to which America really is “the Land of Opportunity” – or the “land of second chances,” as a person in the book expresses it – depends on who is providing the opportunities or offering the second chances. There is the Muslim from Senegal who finds Deo a squatter’s room to sleep in, the nun who tries tirelessly to get him help and assistance, the immigration lawyer who takes his case pro bono.

But there is also the boss who pays him $15 for a 12-hour day delivering groceries and pokes him with a stick as if he were an animal. This martinet informs the other workers, with a laugh, that where Deo comes from people are eating each other because they’re so hungry. By then, Deo is living primarily on bread, milk, and cookies and sleeping in Central Park at night.

America has worlds-within-worlds that Deo must learn to negotiate. One surprising realization is that beneath the patina of being “a New Yorker” – a boast he wants to be able to make – lies a kind of tribalism as pronounced as that separating the Hutus and Tutis. “It was clear that to be a New Yorker could mean so many things that it meant practically nothing at all. He had studied the graffiti on the out walls of subway cars, noting especially the crude, sexually explicit drawings and the vulgar words that his dictionary did contain. He had come to think of these as messages, sent from the people uptown in Harlem to the people downtown….”

Deo’s salvation comes at the hands of a married couple, an artist and a retired professor who offer him a small bedroom in their apartment – the “black hole” they call it wryly – and stake him to $6,000 so he can return to college. Despite having to start his undergraduate career all over again, he becomes a physician.

The normal trajectory of a story like this is that Deo would become well-off in the United States and never set foot again among the people who had tried to murder him. Instead, he defiantly returns, a Nietzschean superman who has come to do what priests (some of whom were implicated in slaughters) and government officials have failed to do: lay the basis for better society using the simple concept of community.

He plans to build a string of clinics in Burundi, enlisting the help of the local people. Of course, there are officials at every turn with their hand out expecting a payoff, but the task is ennobling, transformative. A Hutu militiaman tells him, “I wish I had spent my life trying to do something like this. If I could prolong my life, I would do nothing but work with you guys.” And there is the woman who apologizes for some offense against Deo’s family that she is too frightened to describe.

“Let’s work on the clinic,” he replies. “Let’s put this tragedy behind us, because remembering is not going to benefit anyone.”

“Strength in What Remains” should give pause to readers who assume that memorializing the dead and seeking justice are the twin pillars needed to rebuild the pedestal of civilization. There is a third, stronger than the other two, and it is forgiveness.

Charles J. Shields is the author of “Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee.” He is currently writing a biography of Kurt Vonnegut.

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