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Tracy Kidder tries to transcribe human lives

With his most recent book, 'Strength in What Remains,' he helps the reader walk in the subject's shoes.

August 23, 2009|Susan Salter Reynolds | Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.

BRISTOL, MAINE — Tracy Kidder's 2003 book, "Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World," inspired legions of young people to go out and do something for the poor and disenfranchised. It also lighted a fire under donors -- the checks came pouring in to Farmer's Boston-based organization, Partners in Health, which builds medical clinics in poor communities around the world.

This was not Kidder's intention. He is not a proselytizer, but, because he believes in Farmer and his work, it has been a pleasant side effect. He was just doing the kind of literary journalism that involves seeing the world through the eyes of those he writes about; not judging them, simply presenting them as they move through life.

This is much more difficult than it sounds. Kidder is one of the best, if not the best, at it, garnering a Pulitzer, a National Book Award and generations of grateful readers. His portraits -- of a computer design team, a contractor and client, a town, and now, a refugee from the genocide in Burundi -- are full and thorny; readers must grapple with the issues a life can turn up as they find their own worlds enlarged.

Which is exactly what Farmer did for Kidder. The two met when Kidder was reporting in Haiti. Kidder would go on to profile Farmer for the New Yorker, a piece that led to "Mountains." And it was Farmer who introduced Kidder to Deogratias, the subject of Kidder's new book, "Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness."

Deo is a refugee from horror. He grew up in a village in Burundi and fled a 1993 coup that led to harrowing massacres and the shutdown of the medical school where he was a student. Helped by a series of human angels, he escaped over the border into Rwanda and, in 1994, in the thick of the Rwandan genocide, he came to New York City. Deo was 20 and homeless. He lived in Central Park, worked for supermarkets and taught himself English.

Delivering groceries, he met a remarkable woman who set out to find him a home and did, with a couple in SoHo. Deo worked his way through Columbia, studying philosophy. Then he went on to the Harvard School of Public Health, where he attended a lecture given by Farmer. Deo contacted Farmer and was soon hired at Partners in Health, as a translator and then as a research assistant.

This awakened his desire to go back to medical school. He got into Dartmouth and, in 2006, fulfilling a childhood dream, founded an organization called Village Health Works, raising money to build a medical clinic in his village of Kigutu. In its first year, the clinic treated 28,000 patients, mostly free of charge.

Burundi's ethnic civil war lasted 13 years after Deo, hiding under a bed, had narrowly escaped death. Three hundred thousand Burundians died, including several members of his family. Violence is still a regular occurrence. Last month, a man named Claude Niyokindi, driving a car full of clinic staffers, was shot to death on the road leading to the clinic. "What is clear," Kidder wrote in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, "is that Village Health Works will endure and grow. When they heard the news of Claude's murder, residents of Kigutu formed a human shield around their clinic. In the days that followed, hundreds, including the governor of the province, attended rallies at the site."

Speaking of the past

When I arrived at Kidder's gray-shingled house, he was still reeling from the slaying. One of the unsettling aspects for him about this book was the importance of protecting Deo and his family. Another was the Burundian idea of gusimbura: While we in the West have come to believe in the importance of memory, of telling your story, Burundians do not talk about the dead. This made Kidder's job even more difficult. Deo had told his story to his co-workers, but it took extraordinary tact and persistence for Kidder to re-create it.

Kidder is sympathetic to the limitations of the Western tendency to spill one's guts. He grew up in New York, went to prep school and Harvard and served in Vietnam from 1967 to '69. His 2005 memoir of his time in the military, "My Detachment," a remarkable, honest book, reveals more about the author's self-delusion than the facts of his life. ("My father," he says, "spent too much time on Wall Street. He was very laconic. My mother, who was French, was not. I'm a little bit of both.")

Kidder is given to springy movements and is tall enough to have to fold himself around most pieces of furniture. When he talks, he passes his hand over his eyes and forehead, as if to refocus. I have been told that the writer talks more with the help of a little wine. I have, shamelessly, brought a bottle, ostensibly as a house gift, which I proceed to drink alone -- Kidder and his wife, Frannie, a painter, went to a party the night before and are taking a break.

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