Strength in What Remains is a book that sucks you in to a literary non-fiction narrative, and then spits you into a memoir. Tracy Kidder spends the first half of the book describing the life of Deogratias, a genocide survivor from Burundi, and then follows up with a first person narrative of Kidder’s travels as he researches the book.
Amazingly, it works.
Deogratias grew up in Burundi, a small, landlocked, densely populated country in central east Africa whose past and future are inextricably tied – through cultural overlap and the horrors of genocide — with its neighbor to the north, Rwanda.
Deo grew up in a close-knit family of cattle herders who worked hard to ensure that he was able to go to school. He was a star pupil studying medicine when, in the winter of 1993-94, his education was brutally interrupted by the senseless ethnic violence that preceded the genocide.
When the violence began, Deo escaped – ironically – to Rwanda, just as that country itself spiraled into genocide. Although many are familiar with Rwanda in April 1994 (depicted in the movie Hotel Rwanda) the genocide in Burundi began before and lasted long after the horrors in Rwanda had ceased.
As a member of the Tutsi ethnic group, Deo lived in constant fear that he would be found out, and murdered because of his heritage. He witnessed atrocities in Rwanda, where the Hutu majority relentlessly killed their Tutsi neighbors. He fled back to Burundi after months spent walking at night and hiding during the daytime — stealing food, drinking fouled water, and yet somehow surviving.
Through the miracle of a friend with connections, Deo flew to America and ended up living in New York City, Central Park to be precise. As a homeless person delivering groceries to the wealthy, he grapples with the harsh reality of his new life, frustrated by the indignities that he endures when people treat him as stupid merely because he does not speak fluent English.
Then he meets Sharon McKenna, an ex-nun who first helps him find medical care and then connects him with her friends Nancy and Charlie — who become both benefactor and family to Deo. Through them, he is able to return to school and finish his undergraduate education (at Columbia no less) with the dream of someday returning to medical school.
Through school, he met Paul Farmer, a physician and medical anthropologist who was featured in Kidder’s book Mountains Beyond Mountains. Through Farmer, the journey to Strength in What Remains began.
The brilliance of this book is that Kidder melds the narrative of genocide with Deo’s Horatio Alger story. And in structuring the book as he did, Kidder also gives us insight into how a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer gathers the details of a story. Kidder never forgets that the book is about Deo and his story, but through the intimacy of his first-person narrative, he exposes, to an appropriately lesser degree, his story as well.