Friday, February 11, 2011

Strength in What Remains

by Tracy Kidder
New York, Random House, 2009
284 pages,   Biography

The story of Deogratias Niyizonkiza is not an easy one to tell, nor is it easy to read. A refugee from the genocide in the tiny countries of Burundi and Rwanda, Deo, who was a medical student in Burundi, came to the United States in 1994 with nowhere to go and $200 in his pocket.

In Strength in What Remains, Tracy Kidder has chosen to tell Deo’s story in a non-linear manner, which is a bit disconcerting at first, but understandable given the subject. By beginning the story with a bit of hope—Deo’s arrival in New York—we are better prepared to read of the horrendous escape from death and destruction that he experienced.

Basically, the story is told in sections, the story of hope and lucky breaks in the United States, and the story of destruction and death in Burundi. Along the way, we learn of his childhood and education, and the goodness of people who helped him. But what can’t be denied is the horror Deo experienced as a young medical student that shapes every moment of the rest of his life.

Kidder inserts himself in the last section of the book when he goes with Deo to Burundi and Rwanda to visit Deo’s family and relive with him the experiences of the genocide. He also brings us up to date on Deo’s life, including a visit to the clinic Deo has built in Kigatu, Burundi.

Frankly, the section about the war and Deo’s escape from it is harrowing and gruesome to read. At the same time, the reader becomes engrossed in the graphic drama to such an extent that you realize that you are holding your breath. There are dead bodies everywhere, and you have to remind yourself that this is real and not some overwhelming action scene in a movie. It is absolutely heartrending. The New York Times reviewer comments, “Kidder’s rendering of what Deo endured and survived just before he boarded that plane for New York is one of the most powerful passages of modern nonfiction.”

I could not get over the overriding fact of this genocide: the Hutus and Tutsis are so closely related that most people don’t know whether their neighbors are Hutus or Tutsis…there is no distinguishing physical feature, no distinctive surname, no sign on the door. For much of his childhood, Deo didn’t even know that he was a Tutsi. The differences were primarily a construct left over from the colonial period. Additionally, when we found Rwanda and Burundi on a map, we were amazed to find that they are tiny specks among the much larger sub Saharan countries. How was it possible that hundreds of thousands of people could have died there?

The New York Times reviewer is most complimentary of Tracy Kidder’s writing in this book. He says that Kidder writes “books illuminated by a glowing humanism,” and that he is “trusting the reader enough to present characters in the full splatter of unsettling complexity. This is not about presenting a holy man, a hero. His protagonist is bold, insecure, foolish, inspiring and, as the young man’s memories race to catch him, there are hints that even more shades of personality will soon be revealed.”

Strength in What Remains is the Reading Together book for the Kalamazoo community this year. Tracy Kidder will be speaking at Chenery Auditorium on March 10. It is also the book my book club is reading for this month. My husband and I read this book aloud to each other, something we have done every day of our ten-year marriage.

Here is the New York Times review:

Deogratias Niyizonkiza was a 2010 Voices of Courage winner from the Women’s Refuge Commission:

His organization is called Village Health Works:

Tracy Kidder’s website:

Kalamazoo Public Library Reading Together:

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