Saturday, December 18, 2010

Strength in What Remains

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.

~William Wordsworth,
from Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood

From this portion of one the romantic poet's famous odes - one I enjoy immensely - comes the title for journalist Tracy Kidder's nonfiction work on the life and experiences of a man who literally escaped hell in Burundi and Rwanda.

"Strength in What Remains," by Tracy Kidder (Random House, 2009), a New York Times Bestseller, follows Deogratias, a young Burundi medical student who survives genocide in two countries, escapes to America, and despite all odds finishes college and medical training in the U.S., and returns to his country to help rebuild it.

It was the December pick for the book club I've recently begun attending at the charming, warm and welcoming Wellington Square Bookshop in the Eagleview town square development in Exton.

The thing I like about the book club discussions, other than the intelligent digressions of the colorful women who meet there ... and the wine, is that even in a group of 10 women (men are welcome but afraid of this gathering, I'm afraid), there are wildly differing opinions of the same work.

Some of the women thought this book was uplifting and heartwarming, a tale of the great American success story: someone comes to the U.S. with nothing, not even a remote understanding of the English language, and within a few years finds himself attending Columbia and Harvard.

Others thought the book was a difficult and unpleasant one to get through and had some qualms about the devices the author used to tell the story.

Well, if you hadn't guessed, I shared the latter opinion. While I certainly admire Deo's character and his struggle, I did not enjoy this book. Not that all books have to be enjoyed, but truly, that's what I'm looking for in the words that are putting me to sleep every night.

Deo, whose name, Deogratias, means "thanks be to God" in Latin, has an amazing story to tell - I would have liked to have heard it from him. However, it could've just been my own timing. I do think you have to be in the right mindset for a heavy book like this, and I was not. December is ... not my favorite month. It's busy, people are harried and stressed, there are money worries. And don't get me started on Christmas. A happier, lighter book would've been a nice respite.

But, I digress.

I don't deny that Deo's story is heroic and miraculous. He, against all odds, somehow escaped his native country, just barely, with his life after two ethnic groups, the Hutus (the farmers) and the Tutsis (those who owned the cows), stopped getting along (to put it mildly). The Hutus murdered hundreds of thousands of Tutsis in mass genocide. Their reasons make little sense, as Deo points out there were little if any differences between the two peoples.

The book goes back and forth from Deo's experience in New York and his time in his native land. This device of Kidder's works well. We see Deo struggling to afford food and sleeping in Central Park in one chapter while another, back in Africa, is a vivid description of the murders Deo witnesses, and anecdotes such as body parts picked up by roving dogs.

Luck seems to be with Deo (which is tough to say for someone who endures the worst kind of evil and survives ... but he does survive). Though he walks through hell for weeks both in Burundi and in the U.S., by divine providence strangers appear at the right place at the right time to offer a hand.

When his country burns and seethes all around him, Deo somehow reconnects with a wealthy friend who finds some money for him and gets him on a plane to New York City. Once Deo arrives, he has $200 in his pocket and no prospects.

But Deo, though he is starving and homeless much of the first months he lands in the U.S., continues to manages to hook up with amazingly compassionate and kind people ... though of course, some people are horrible to him.

One of the helpful acquaintences is an airport worker who finds him a place to sleep, shows him how to use the subway system, and gets him a job as a grocery deliveryman (albeit for $15/day under the table, with little chance of tips). Deo also befriends or is befriended by a very generous nun, who eventually finds him a home with a wealthy couple who pays his way through Columbia and gives him an allowance so he doesn't have to work.

To fast forward, he teaches himself English. He studies hard and gets his undergrad and medical degrees. He makes it. If he can make it here, he'll make it anywhere.

As a woman in the book club said, at times it was hard to remember that this was nonfiction, Deo was such a good character, and his journey was so compelling.

And there is a happy ending of sorts. Deo becomes a doctor, he returns to his country to help rebuild, he hooks up with philanthropic groups such as Partners in Health that provide him the means to do so. He is remarkable.

What I disliked about the book was that about halfway through, Kidder stops telling Deo's story and starts recounting his own experience telling Deo's story. Sure, Kidder's a Pulitzer winner and a good writer and all, but ... really? This is where the book became a giant ego trip and lost me.

I wished that Deo was doing the writing so I could learn what he really thought about his not-so-warm welcome to America, and about his violent past. I wished Kidder would shut up about himself.

About half the book club said they loved the book, while half - or maybe a little more than half (including me) - did not.

For next month's book club we're reading light fiction, and I could use some!
I'm off to read a Carl Hiaasen novel for a break.

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