Strength in What Remains

Strength in What Remains

3.9 102
by Tracy Kidder

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In Strength in What Remains, Tracy Kidder gives us the story of one man’s inspiring American journey and of the ordinary people who helped him, providing brilliant testament to the power of second chances. Deo arrives in the United States from Burundi in search of a new life. Having survived a civil war and genocide, he lands at JFK airport with two

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In Strength in What Remains, Tracy Kidder gives us the story of one man’s inspiring American journey and of the ordinary people who helped him, providing brilliant testament to the power of second chances. Deo arrives in the United States from Burundi in search of a new life. Having survived a civil war and genocide, he lands at JFK airport with two hundred dollars, no English, and no contacts. He ekes out a precarious existence delivering groceries, living in Central Park, and learning English by reading dictionaries in bookstores. Then Deo begins to meet the strangers who will change his life, pointing him eventually in the direction of Columbia University, medical school, and a life devoted to healing. Kidder breaks new ground in telling this unforgettable story as he travels with Deo back over a turbulent life and shows us what it means to be fully human.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for Tracy Kidder’s Strength In What Remains

“That 63-year-old Tracy Kidder may have just written his finest work — indeed, one of the truly stunning books I've read this year — is proof that the secret to memorable nonfiction is so often the writer’s readiness to be surprised. Deo’s experience can feel like this era’s version of the Ellis Island migration. Deo is propelled, so often, by pure will, and his victories…summon a feeling of restored confidence in human nature and American opportunity. Then we plunge into hell. Having only glimpses of Deo’s past, we suddenly get a full-blown portrait. Kidder’s rendering of what Deo endured and survived just before he boarded the plane for New York is one of the most powerful passages of modern nonfiction.”
–Ron Suskind, The New York Time Book Review

“Kidder tells Deo's story with characteristic skill and sensitivity in a complex narrative that moves back and forth through time to build a richly layered portrait. One of the pleasures of reading Kidder is that sooner or later, in most of his books, someone puts us in mind of the closing lines from &'grave;Middlemarch'': &'grave;For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.''”
–Boston Globe

“A tale of unspeakable barbarism and unshakeable strength.” –Time Magazine

“It is a mark of the skill and ­empathy of Mr. Kidder, a Pulitzer Prize-winning ­author, that he makes Deo's story come alive believably–as the experience of a real ­individual–and avoids…the usual tropes of a ­triumph-of-the- human-spirit tale. [T]he book encourages a general hope that individuals can ­transcend even the greatest horrors.”
–Wall Street Journal

"Strength in What Remains" builds in magnitude and poignancy. It is moving without being uplifting, because Kidder has the intelligence to avoid any hint of the saccharine within its pages.” –Chicago Tribune

“[Tracy Kidder’s] kind of literary journalism…involves seeing the world through the eyes of those he writes about; not judging them, simply presenting them as they move through life… Kidder is one of the best, if not the best, at it, garnering a Pulitzer, a National Book Award and generations of grateful readers.” –Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

“In its sober ability to astonish, this may well be Tracy Kidder's best book.”
–Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Tracy Kidder's new book "Strength in What Remains" is...a narrative infused with a broad, universal appeal and occasional touches of brilliance. He offers us fine prose, complex characters, and realistic portrayals. Deo's resilience, his struggle to overcome adversity strikes a chord in all of us. His story reaffirms our hope that one person can make a difference... [T]his book is one not to be missed. –Seattle Times

Tracy Kidder is probably one of the few authors alive who can craft a narrative from the extremes of despair and hope and make it work beautifully. Kidder is a master of creative nonfiction, employing both journalistic and novelistic techniques to tell a true story, compellingly. –Steve Weinberg, Raleigh News & Observer

“With an anthropologist’s eye and a novelist’s pen, Pulitzer Prize—winning Kidder (Mountains Beyond Mountains) recounts the story of Deo, the Burundian former medical student turned American émigré at the center of this strikingly vivid story…. This profoundly gripping, hopeful and crucial testament is a work of the utmost skill, sympathy and moral clarity.”
Publishers Weekly ( starred review)

“A tale of ethnocide, exile and healing by a master of narrative nonfiction…. Terrifying at turns, but tremendously inspiring…a key document in the growing literature devoted to postgenocidal justice.” –Kirkus Reviews

"Read this book, and it's one that you will not likely forget. The story of a journey, classical in its way, but contemporary and very modern in its details. It's written with such simplicity and lucidity that it transcends the moment and becomes as powerful and compelling as those journeys of myth." –Jonathan Harr, author of A Civil Action and The Lost Painting

“The reporting is impeccable, but it’s Kidder’s great feat of sympathetic imagination that dazzles. Walk a mile in Deo’s shoes; your world will be larger and darker for it.”
–William Finnegan, author of Cold New World and Crossing the Line

“The journey of Deo achieves mythic importance in Tracy Kidder’s expert hands.”
–Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, author of Random Family

“Tracy Kidder’s Strength in What Remains is a tour de force. Inspiring. Moving. Gripping. Deo’s story is remarkable, stunning really. His journey is the story of our times, one that keeps the rest of us from forgetting. This book will stir the conscience and resurrect your faith in the human spirit.” –Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here

"Believe me, at the end of this riveting narrative, your eyes will not be dry."
–Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost

Ron Suskind
That 63-year-old Tracy Kidder may have just written his finest work—indeed, one of the truly stunning books I've read this year—is proof that the secret to memorable nonfiction is so often the writer's readiness to be surprised…Kidder's approach is a reminder of what can make American nonfiction so exceptional although, of late, it is rare. It's that bottom-up quality that defies big-budget marketing and calculation, the search from on high for a "sure thing." In this connected age, disruptive change—and transforming insights—bubble up furiously from the least likely places. Kidder saw that bottom-up flash of energy in the smile of a peripheral man. And we are lucky he did.
—The New York Times Book Review
Dwight Garner
I read with great interest. Mr. Kidder relates the story of Deo's rural childhood in Burundi with patient grace and attention to detail. He has a casual mastery of complex topics, like the history of suspicion and animosity between Hutus and Tutsis…Strength in What Remains is perhaps at its finest as an examination of the nature of human charity and good will.
—The New York Times
Marie Arana
…extraordinarily stirring…It's certainly not the first time we've heard heartbreaking accounts of the civil wars in Africa. But there is a touching intimacy about Deogratias's tale, and it forces us to look hard at the baffling history of the region.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

With an anthropologist's eye and a novelist's pen, Pulitzer Prize-winning Kidder (Mountains Beyond Mountains) recounts the story of Deo, the Burundian former medical student turned American émigré at the center of this strikingly vivid story. Told in flashbacks from Deo's 2006 return visit to Burundi to mid-1990s New York and the Burundi of childhood memory and young adulthood-as the Rwandan genocide spilled across the border following the same inflamed ethnic divisions-then picking up in 2003, when author and subject first meet, Deo's experience is conveyed with a remarkable depth of vision and feeling. Kidder renders his subject with deep yet unfussy fidelity and the conflict with detail and nuance. While the book might recall Dave Eggers's novelized version of a real-life Sudanese refugee's experience in What Is the What, reading this book hardly covers old ground, but enables one to walk in the footsteps of its singular subject and see worlds new and old afresh. This profoundly gripping, hopeful and crucial testament is a work of the utmost skill, sympathy and moral clarity. (Aug.)

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Kirkus Reviews
A tale of ethnocide, exile and healing by a master of narrative nonfiction. Deogratias, Deo for short, is a young African man who would be easy to lose in the busy streets of New York-timid, unsure of which subway goes where, speaking only halting English. So he arrived more than a decade ago, one of many with a sobering story. From Burundi, he narrowly escaped being massacred for being Tutsi, then fled across the border to Rwanda, where he narrowly escaped death in many guises. In New York, he was befriended by a kindhearted Senegalese who invited him to join a community of squatters from West Africa, Jamaica and other foreign lands. But when his friend returned to Africa-"it's so hard here," he told Deo-the young Burundian was on his own, living on the streets, sleeping in parks and libraries. From there, by virtue of hard work and personal charm, he steadily rose in a way that would do Horatio Alger proud. He gained admission to Columbia and worked to finish the medical degree he was earning back home, all the while sending hard-earned money to relatives and taking elective courses in literature and the humanities. When Kidder (My Detachment, 2005, etc.) picks up the tale in the first person, he accompanies Deo on a return trip to a remote part of Burundi, where the former refugee built a hospital. Upon seeing this place, called Village Health Works, one Hutu man who had pledged to killing Tutsis remarks, "I wish I had spent my life trying to do something like this." The moment, Kidder makes clear, does not portend forgiveness, for the graves of untold hundreds of thousands are still too fresh-but it does speak to the possibility of remembrance and, one hopes, reconciliation.Terrifying at turns, but tremendously inspiring-like Andrew Rice's The Teeth May Smile But the Heart Does Not Forget (2009), a key document in the growing literature devoted to postgenocidal justice.

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Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.28(w) x 8.04(h) x 0.62(d)
Age Range:
15 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Part One, Flights  
Chapter One

Bujumbura-NewYork, May 1994  

On the outskirts of the capital, Bujumbura, there is a small international airport. It has a modern terminal with intricate roofs and domed metal structures that resemble astronomical observatories. It is the kind of terminal that seems designed to say that here you leave the past behind, the future has arrived, behold the wonders of aviation. But in Burundi in 1994, for the lucky few with tickets, an airplane was just the fastest, safest way out. It was flight.

  In the spring of that year, violence and chaos governed Burundi. To the west, the hills above Bujumbura were burning. Smoke seemed to be pouring off the hills, as the winds of mid-May carried the plumes of smoke downward in undulating sheets, in the general direction of the airport. A large passenger jet was parked on the tarmac, and a disordered crowd was heading toward it in sweaty haste. Deo felt as if he were being carried by the crowd, immersed in an unfamiliar river. The faces around him were mostly white, and though many were black or brown, there was no one whom he recognized, and so far as he could tell there were no country people. As a little boy, he had crouched behind rocks or under trees the first times he'd seen airplanes passing overhead. He had never been so close to a plane before. Except for buildings in the capital, this was the largest man-made thing he'd ever seen. He mounted the staircase quickly. Only when he had entered the plane did he let himself look back, staring from inside the doorway as if from a hiding place again.   In Deo's mind, there was danger everywhere. If his heightened sense of drama was an inborn trait, it had certainly been nourished. For months every situation had in fact been dangerous. Climbing the stairs a moment before, he had imagined a voice in his head telling him not to leave. But now he stared at the hills and he imagined that everything in Burundi was burning. Burundi had become hell. He finally turned away, and stepped inside. In front of him were cushioned chairs with clean white cloths draped over their backs, chairs in perfect rows with little windows on the ends. This was the most nicely appointed room he'd ever seen. It looked like paradise compared to everything outside. If it was real, it couldn't last.  

The plane was packed, but he felt entirely alone. He had a seat by a window. Something told him not to look out, and something told him to look. He did both. His hands were shaking. He felt he was about to vomit. Everyone had heard stories of planes being shot down, not only the Rwandan president's plane back in April but others as well. He was waiting for this to happen after the plane took off. For several long minutes, whenever he glanced out the window all he saw was smoke. When the air cleared and he could see the landscape below, he realized that they must already have crossed the Akanyaru River, which meant they had left Burundi and were now above Rwanda. He had crossed a lot of the land down there on foot. It wasn't all that small. To see it transformed into a tiny piece of time and space-this could only happen in a dream.  

He gazed down, face pressed against the windowpane. Plumes of smoke were also rising from the ground of what he took to be Rwanda-if anything, more smoke than around Bujumbura. A lot of it was coming from the banks of muddy-looking rivers. He thought, "People are being slaughtered down there." But those sights didn't last long. When he realized he wasn't seeing smoke anymore, he took his face away from the window and felt himself begin to relax, a long-forgotten feeling.  

He liked the cushioned chair. He liked the sensation of flight. How wonderful to travel in an easy chair instead of on foot. He began to realize how constricted his intestines and stomach had felt, as if wound into knots for months on end, as the tightness seeped away. Maybe the worst was over now, or maybe he was just in shock. "I don't really know where I'm going," he thought. But if there was to be no end to this trip, that would be all right. A memory from world history class surfaced. Maybe he was like that man who got lost and discovered America. He craned his neck and looked upward through the window. There was nothing but darkening blue. He looked down and realized just how high above the ground he was seated. "Imagine if this plane crashes," he thought. "That would be awful." Then he said to himself, "I don't care. It would be a good death."  

For the moment, he was content with that thought, and with everything around him. The only slightly troubling thing was the absence of French in the cabin. He knew for a fact-he'd been taught it was so since elementary school-that French was the universal language, and universal because it was the best of all languages. He knew Russians owned this plane. Only Aeroflot, he'd been told,  was still offering commercial flights from Bujumbura. So it wasn't strange that all the signs in the cabin were in a foreign script. But he couldn't find a single word written in French, even on the various cards in the seat pocket.  

The plane landed in Entebbe, in Uganda. As he waited in the terminal for his next flight, Deo watched what looked like a big family make a fuss over a young man about his age, a fellow passenger as it turned out. When the flight started to board, the whole bunch around this boy began weeping and wailing. The young man was wiping tears from his eyes as he walked toward the plane. Probably he was just going away on a trip. Probably he would be coming back soon. In his mind, Deo spoke to the young man: "You are in tears. For what? Here you have this huge crowd of family." He felt surprised, as if by a distant memory, that there were, after all, many small reasons for people to cry. His own mind kept moving from one extreme to another. Everything was a crisis, and nothing that wasn't a crisis mattered. He thought that if he were as lucky as that boy and still had that much family left, he wouldn't be crying. For that matter, be wouldn't be boarding airplanes, leaving his country behind.  

Deo had grown up barefoot in Burundi, but for a peasant boy he had done well. He was twenty-four. Until recently he had been a medical student, for three years at or near the top of his class. In his old faux-leather suitcase, which he had reluctantly turned over to the baggage handler in the airport in Bujumbura, he had packed some of the evidence of his success: the French dictionary that elementary school teachers gave only to prized students, and the general clinical text and one of the stethoscopes that he had saved up to buy. But he had spent the past six months on the run, first from the eruption of violence in Burundi, then from the slaughter in Rwanda.  

In geography class in school, Deo had learned that the most important parts of the world were France and Burundi's colonial master, Belgium. When someone he knew, usually a priest, was going abroad, that person was said to be going to "Iburaya." And while this usually meant Belgium or France, it could also mean any place that was far away and hard to imagine. Deo was heading for Iburaya. In this case, that meant New York City.  

He had one wealthy friend who had seen more of the world than East Central Africa, a fellow medical student named Jean. And it was Jean who had decided that New York was where he should go. Deo was traveling on a commercial visa. Jean's French father had written a letter identifying Deo as an employee on a mission to America. He was supposed to be going to New York to sell coffee. Deo had read up on coffee beans in case he was questioned, but he wasn't selling anything. Jean's father had also paid for the plane tickets. A fat booklet of tickets.

  From Entebbe, Deo flew to Cairo, then to Moscow. He slept a lot. He would wake with a start and look around the cabin. When he realized that no one resembled anyone he knew, he would relax again. During his medical training and in his country's history, pigmentation had certainly mattered, but he wasn't troubled by the near total whiteness of the faces around him on the plane that he boarded in Moscow. White skin hadn't been a marker of danger these past months. He had heard of French soldiers behaving badly in Rwanda, and had even caught glimpses of them training militiamen in the camps, but waking up and seeing a white person in the next seat wasn't alarming. No one called him a cockroach. No one held a machete. You learned what to look out for, and after a while you learned to ignore the irrelevant. He did wonder again from time to time why he wasn't hearing people speak French.  

When his flight from Moscow landed, he was half asleep. He followed the other passengers out of the plane. He thought this must be New York. The first thing to do was find his bag. But the airport terminal distracted him. It was like nothing he'd ever seen before, an indoor place of shops where everyone looked happy. And everyone was large. Compared to him anyway. He'd never been heavy, but his pants, which had fit all right six months before, were bunched up at the waist. When he looked down at himself, the end of his belt seemed as long to him as a monkey's tail. His belly was concave under his shirt. Here in Iburaya everyone's clothes looked better than his.  

He started walking. Looking around for a sign with a luggage symbol on it, he came to a corridor with a glassed-in wall. He glanced out, then stopped and stared. There were green fields out there in the distance, and on those fields cows were grazing. From this far away, they might have been his family's herd. His last images of cows were of murdered and suffering animals-decapitated cows and cows with their front legs chopped off, still alive and bellowing by the sides of the road to Bujumbura and even in Bujumbura. These cows looked so happy, just like the people around him. How was this possible?  

A voice was speaking to him. He turned and saw a man in uniform, a policeman. The man looked even bigger than everyone else. He seemed friendly, though. Deo spoke to him in French, but the man shook his head and smiled. Then another gigantic-looking policeman joined them. He asked a question in what Deo guessed was English. Then a woman who had been sitting nearby got up and walked over-French, at long last French, coming out of her mouth along with cigarette smoke.   Perhaps she could help, the woman said in French.  

Deo thought: "God, I'm still in your hands."   She did the interpreting. The airport policemen wanted to see Deo's passport and visa and ticket. Deo wanted to know where he should go to pick up his bag.  

The policemen looked surprised. One of them asked another question. The woman said to Deo, "The man asks, 'Do you know where you are?' "  

"Yes," said Deo. "New York City."   She broke into a smile, and translated this for the uniformed men. They looked at each other and laughed, and the woman explained to Deo that he was in a country called Ireland, in a place called Shannon Airport.  

He chatted with the woman afterward. She told him she was Russian. What mattered to Deo was that she spoke French. After such long solitude, it felt wonderful to talk, so wonderful that for a while he forgot all he knew about the importance of silence, the silence he'd been taught as a child, the silence he had needed over the past six months. She asked him where he came from, and before he knew it he had said too much. She started asking questions. He was from Burundi? And had escaped from Rwanda? She had been to Rwanda. She was a journalist. She planned to write about the terrible events there. It was a genocide, wasn't it? Was he a Tutsi?  

She arranged to sit next to him on the flight to New York. He felt glad for the company, and besieged by her questions. She wanted to know all about his experiences. To answer felt dangerous. She wasn't just a stranger, she was a journalist. What would she write? What if she found out his name and used it? Would bad people read it and come to find him in New York? He tried to tell her as little as possible. "It was terrible. It was disgusting," he'd say, and turning toward the airplane's window, he'd see images he didn't want in his mind-a gray dawn and a hut with a burned thatch roof smoldering in the rain, a pack of dogs snarling over something he wasn't going to look at, swarms of flies like a warning in the air above a banana grove ahead. He'd turn back to her to chase away the visions. She seemed like a friend, his only friend on this journey. She was older than he was, she'd even been to New York. He wanted to pay her back for helping him in Ireland, and pay her in advance for helping him enter New York. So he tried to answer her questions without revealing anything important.  

They talked most of the way to New York. But when they got up from their seats, she turned to him an said, "Au revoir." When he reached Immigration and took a place at the end of one of the lines, he again spotted her. She was standing in another line, pretending not to see him. He looked away, down at his sneakers, blurred by tears. The spasm passed. He was used to being alone, wasn't he? He didn't care what happened to him anymore, did he? And what was there to fear? What could the man in the booth up ahead do to him? Whatever it might be, he'd already seen worse.  

The agent stared at Deo's documents, then started asking questions in what had to be English. There was nothing to do except smile. Then the first agent got up from his seat and called another agent over. Eventually, the second agent went off and came back with a third man-a short, burly, black-skinned man with a bunch of keys as big as a fist on his belt. He introduced himself to Deo in French. His name was Muhammad. He said he came from Senegal.  

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