Criticism & Features

Year 2009: 30 Books

Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness

By Karen Long

Each day leading up to the March 11 announcement of the 2009 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights one of the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Karen Long discusses nonfiction finalist Tracy Kidder's Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness (Random House)

Two centuries after the 1807 publication of “Ode: Intimation of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” Tracy Kidder picked up four words from William Wordsworth to serve as the title for his book.

Strength in What Remains gathers in potency and aptness as it follows the remarkable life of one man, a survivor of genocide in Burundi. Deogratias is 24, penniless, and underweight, when he is thrown onto the cold, dirty shores of Manhattan in 1994, pretending to be a coffee bean salesman. He knows no one. He speaks no English.

In Latin, “Deogratias” means “Thanks be to God.”

He meets a Senegalese airport worker who speaks French and who offers him temporary floor space in a squatters’ hovel. This is a depressing start, as Kidder throws open Deo’s door to America, “reeking of urine and excrement . . . covered with empty cans and bottles and all sorts of paper trash.”

Deo finds his hunt for shelter bewildering: “What did it say about him that no one was willing to lend him a bed? The feelings that came from this weren’t entirely different from the feelings that came from having people try to kill you. You wondered who they thought you were and who you were in fact.”

Deo will be robbed at knifepoint, sleep homeless in Central Park, be cheated and mocked. But the reader does well to trust Kidder—that artery of luck and stamina that Kidder found in The Soul of the New Machine flows here, too, and lifts Deo off the streets, eventually into a safe home and class at Columbia University, where another incoming freshmen asks if he is the son of an African king.

How Deo he is saved, and how he heals himself, is a story you won’t read anywhere else. Kidder’s exemplary research never bogs down the narrative, and he avoids the pitfalls of smoothing out human complexity.

Kidder takes a suspect genre, the “as told to” story, and cleaves it. The first part is the adventure of Deo’s improbable survival, turning on such arbitrary details as his having left his door unlocked, which deflected a death squad’s rampaging search for him.

But what most elevates this book is its second half, in which Kidder explores “Gusimbura,” the Burundian notion that reviving painful memories is worse than rude. Deo is beset by nightmares, “a messy mind,” a weak stomach, and a sensitive heart.

Part of the answer for him arrives in the form of Paul Farmer, whose book, Infections and Inequalities, Deo discovers in Columbia’s library, and whose organization, Partners in Health, in Boston, gives him a job. This will no doubt tickle fans of Mountains Beyond Mountains, in which Kidder probed another seam of stamina and luck–Farmer’s daunting medical practice in Haiti. The link to Farmer is how Kidder came to know Deo.

“At Partners In Health, I think, Deo had discovered a way to quiet the questions he’d been asking at Columbia,” Kidder writes. “That is, he saw there might be an answer for what troubled him most about the world, an answer that lay in his hands, indeed in his memory. You had to do something.”

What Deogratias does should be left to the reader to discover.

Click here to read an excerpt from Strength in What Remains.

And here's a video of Tracy Kidder discussing the back story of Strength in What Remains.