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.