Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder

His name was Deogratias, or "thanks be to God" in Latin. The reader meets Deo as he is boarding an airplane that will take him away from the slaughter (where a million people died) in Rwanda and his homeland, Burundi, a genocidal war fought between the Tutsi and the Hutu.

Deo had been a third-year medical student at the top of his class when he escaped Africa and, thanks to the kindness of a wealthy classmate's family, flew to New York City on a business visa (he was told to say he was in America to sell coffee).

He had $200 in his pocket and spoke only French.

A baggage handler at the airport offered Deo space in his apartment, which in fact was only a squatter's room in the worst part of upper New York City.

Deo learned rudimentary English by studying a French-English dictionary. His money gone, he managed to find a job delivering groceries for $15 a day, working for a contemptuous manager who poked him with a long pole to get his attention. When Deo's benefactor, the baggage handler, returned to Africa, Deo began sleeping at night in hidden places in Central Park. He found it peaceful--trees and stars and grass, like Africa.

Not only did Deo experience loneliness and cruelty in America, but he also endured appalling memories of the last months in Burundi. He slept poorly, was always afraid, and saw no hope for a future.

He prayed to God to end his life.

Then Deo met a kind nun who reached out to help him, and within two years, amazingly and miraculously, Deo was enrolled in Columbia University...

How the kindness and support of strangers served as catalysts to transform his bleak future is the central part of Kidder's book.

But this astonishing true story doesn't end with Deo's triumphant entry into an ivy league university: Kidder also follows Deo, now a graduate student in the public health field, on a journey back to his past, where he finds some of his family still living; and he describes Deo's intense efforts to help build medical facilities for his people.

Although often uncomfortable to read, Tracy Kidder's Strength in What Remains is a superb accounting of a single human life that endures and triumphs in the face of overwhelming trauma.

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