Tracy Kidder has forged a place among the pantheon of American narrative non-fiction writers.
Starting with his Pulitzer Prize winning work, The Soul of A New Machine, the former Vietnam Veteran has combined his impressive powers of observation, ability to turn a phrase and sense of character into highly memorable works.
While I’ve not read all of his boos, here are some of my favorites by the man who many consider the dean of writers in and about Western Massachusetts:
1. Mountains Beyond Mountains. This story tells about the remarkable Paul Farmer and his journey from humble beginnings in Florida to committing and acting on an unstinting dedication to the world’s poor and underserved. Based initially in Haiti, the adoptive homeland of his heart and wife’s home country, Farmer’s organization Partners in Health now works in countries around the world like Russia and Venezuela.
2. Among Schoolchildren: This book follows a year in the life of a fifth grade classroom, with all the accompanying highs and lows. Mrs. Zajac, a teacher with heart and grit working in working class Holyoke, is the book’s likable protagonist. In the end, the reader is drawn to Kidder’s conclusion that she didn’t give up on the children, but she did run out of time.
3. Old Friends: This work is set in a nursing home in Western Massachusetts and depicts the tender friendship that exists between two elderly men. Kidder does an effective job of making the seemingly mundane moments and later stages of life have vitality, poignance and meaning.
4. House: I put this book lower on the list not because I didn’t like it quite as much, but because the clients who were having their home built from the ground up grated on me. Kidder shows what a painstaking process, rife with stress, cost overrides and architectural compromise, making a home can be. I particularly enjoyed his descriptions of the workers’ background, relationships and desires. He also has a touching scene at the end when the foreman, who has put so much into the house, has to leave it to the new owners.