Strength in What Remains

By Tracy Kidder (Random House, 2009)

I almost didn’t read the new book by the great journalist Tracy Kidder, and I’m not proud of either of the reasons why.

First, I didn’t like the title. Tracy Kidder has had some memorably evocative titles (Among Schoolchildren, an allusion to a Yeats poem, whether he knew it or not; Home Town; and one of the best titles ever, The Soul of a New Machine, which among other virtues always reminds me of the Police album Ghost in the Machine). But he now has two terrible titles to his name. First, there was Mountains Beyond Mountains, a portrait of the saint on earth Paul Farmer. And now comes Strength in What Remains, about Farmer's also quite saintly Burundian colleague Deogratias Niyizonkiza. There's something about good people that, for Kidder, makes for bad, treacly titles.

I also didn’t want to read a book about genocide. Having skipped Philip Gourevitch’s book about the Rwandan genocide, avoided David Rieff’s writings on genocide and intervention, and missed every book about death and destruction in Iraq (except Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s, which I correctly suspected would be fun to read because it’s all about what incompetent boobs the Bush administration were), I thought I might as well keep up my streak: no books that threaten to convince me that mankind is irredeemably evil and God, if he exists, doesn’t care.

But I read a review of Kidder’s new book on the day in August that my annual birthday gift from my in-laws, an Amazon gift certificate, arrived in my e-mail inbox. So I bought it. And in the last week I have finally read it.

And it’s warm, and humane, and at times funny. There’s no shortage of intense misery, described all too well. Of the frequent flashback scenes that take us from Deogratias’s more comfortable life in the United States back to the hell he endured less than ten years ago in his native Burundi, where as a Tutsi he was hunted by Hutu génocidaires, the most haunting involves an orphaned infant whom Deogratias could not save. I won’t tell you any more than that—partly because I don’t want to give away too much, partly because I just don’t want to re-live it in the typing.

For me, the book’s most unusual achievement is to show us a big American city, New York, through the eyes of a penniless refugee. Before Deogratias was taken in by generous Americans, before he enrolled at Columbia, before his graduate work at Harvard and then Dartmouth, he was delivering groceries for below minimum wage and sleeping in Central Park, hoping to one day figure out that subway system. No matter how impressive the accomplishments that bracket this period—surviving, on foot, and evading his would-be killers; becoming an educated American and building a hospital back in Burundi, a hospital which opened in 2007—it’s Deogratias’s early days as a nameless, faceless, dark black man in a city where he knew nobody that I will always remember best.