Tracy Kidder and the Strength in What Remains.


Tracy Kidder talks Wednesday night in Winnetka about his latest book, Strength in What Remains.

Tracy Kidder talks Wednesday night in Winnetka about his latest book, Strength in What Remains.

The horrific events of the 1994 Rwandan genocide have been comparatively well chronicled, but far less is known about the carnage that occurred in neighboring Burundi around the same time.

Thanks to Tracy Kidder’s latest book, Strength in What Remains, we know more about Burundi’s history through the remarkable story of survival of a young man named Deogratias. 

Kidder will be speaking about the book, which draws its title from a Wordsworth poem, on Wednesday night at Winnetka Congregational Church.

Kidder starts the book in southwestern Burundi, to where Deo, whose name means, “Thanks be to G-d,” has returned after years to face his past and help his people.  The opening vignette introduces both the book’s protagonist and the idea, which may be a bit jarring to many Western readers, that, in Burundi, people try to forget.

The intertwined strands of Deo’s journey from Burundi to American and back, his country’s murderous history and the themes of how much to remember and what to forget form much of the substance in this creatively structured book.  

Kidder moves back and forth across continents and four decades between New York, to where Deo arrives after having narrowly escaped death both in Burundi as the turmoil began, and in the refugee camps, where the Hutu interahamwe killers received succor and regrouped. 

Kidder’s insertion of himself and his conversations with Deo during the last 40 percent of the book is another unusual feature for this master of non fiction narrative.  

This part of the book also includes a relatively expository section about Burundi’s history and how relations between the Hutu and Tutsi unfolded there as compared with its neighbor.   The reader emerges with a more complex understanding of the interplay of demographic distribution and colonial and post-colonial history.

After his harrowing experiences in Burundi, Deo arrives in America unable to speak English and with barely a penny in his possession.  

Another thrust of Kidder’s book is to show the trail of strangers who reached out to and aided Deo along his way.  These include a Hutu woman who saved his life in the refugee camp, an African immigrant who sheltered him after he arrived in America, a spiritual woman named Sharon who nurtured him and the couple to whom she introduced him.

Kidder is determined to insert this chain of goodness, and the reciprocal benefit the connections create for Deo and his helpers, into the conversation about human responses to human atrocity in particular, and each other, in general. 

He also shows the power of witness.  He and Deo met through Paul Farmer, co-creator of Partners In Health and subject of Kidder’s penultimate book, Mountains Beyond Mountains. Farmer is one of the only people to whom Deo tells his entire story, and the effect ultimately is a positive one for him.

In the end, Deo has completed his medical studies and returned to his home land to set up a clinic and provide some of the medical care his people so desperately need.  He also finds within himself the strength to go again to places where he hid in fear for his life.  

For those unable to make Wednesday night’s event,  I would recommend this simply written and thought provoking book.  While not my favorite by Kidder, it is still a valuable story well told and worth reading.


8 responses to “Tracy Kidder and the Strength in What Remains.

  1. Jeff, I love this book; I just finished reading it myself. Yes, Mountains Beyond Mountains is Kidder’s “penultimate book”, but we can always use to deepen our understanding of how people persevere or in this case find strength in what remains. What a story! I wish I could hear Kidder Wednesday night myself. I wonder at the skill it takes to write a book like this: Before considering the technical composition, I marvel at the development of the relationship with the subject (Deo) and the patient assemblage of information and understanding. How can he remember so much of what went on in their travels? How much did he write down on they moved around? Inspiring may be an overused word, trivialized sometimes, but I think it fits well here. The world is a better place because of Deo, and he has been able to become who he is with the assistance of the wonderful others that Kidder chronicles in this volume. Nice also to get the perspective of events in Burundi; as you wrote, Rwanda has gotten a lot of–deserved–attention, but so little do we tend to know about its southern neighbor. Thank you for keeping up your writing. It helps keep many others of us more current with all the valuable and stimulating publishing that keeps on coming. Take care my friend, and we will talk soon. Best to your family.

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks very much, Dave, for your kind words and thoughtful analysis of Kidder’s most recent book. I apologize for not getting back to you sooner and will try to give you a call tonight.

      Hope all is well with you and your crew.



  2. I like the book. I usually like Kidder, but this book is biased. In spite of the good that Deo is doing, it still puts the Hutus as perpetrators, which overlooks the ethnic violence and ethnic cleansing led by Tutsis….

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I have read quite a bit about the genocide, but not found evidence about ethnic violence and cleansing led by Tutsis. Could you be more specific about what you are asserting?


  3. I can understand that. 1972, 1993. Just the main examples. Maybe I am biased being that I lost a lot of family in both backlashes.
    Rwandan history might indicate that Hutus were the perpetrators, but in Burundi, the Tutsis were doing the killing and assassinations.
    Unless you believe that Melchior Ndadaye was killed by his own people, or that the plane that was shot down and killed Havyarimana was a coincidental death.

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      I am sorry for your family’s losses. I have read a lot more about Rwanda than about Burundi, so will look into what you have shared here.

      Are you saying that Tutsis killed both Ndadaye and Habayarimana? For the latter, at least, I have heard and read that the circumstances were unclear.


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