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Synopsis

BONUS: This edition contains a Strength in What Remains discussion guide.

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.

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.  


From the Hardcover edition.
Tracy Kidder

About Tracy Kidder

Tracy Kidder - Strength in What Remains

Photo © Gabriel Amadeus Cooney

Tracy Kidder graduated from Harvard and studied at the University of Iowa. He has won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Award, and many other literary prizes. The author of Mountains Beyond Mountains, My Detachment, Home Town, Old Friends, Among Schoolchildren, House, and The Soul of a New Machine, Kidder lives in Massachusetts and Maine.
Praise

Praise

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 ``Middlemarch'': ``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



From the Hardcover edition.
Discussion Questions|Teachers Guide

Discussion Guides

1. Tracy Kidder gets his title, Strength in What Remains, from a poem by William Wordsworth; the passage is included at the beginning of the book. What did the poem mean to you before reading Strength in What Remains? Did the meaning of the poem change after you read the book? If so, how? 

2. While making his escape to the United States, Deo views New York as a land of promise and opportunity. But when he is first in New York, living in Harlem and then Central Park, he feels lonelier than ever before. He thinks, “It was clear that to be a New Yorker could mean so many things that it meant practically nothing at all” (p. 32). What does he mean by this? How does his opinion of New York— and thus the United States— change over the course of the book? 

3. Deo realizes that he is in the “bottom to that near- bottom” (p. 22) of the social hierarchy in New York, yet he makes certain that no one observes him entering Central Park at a late hour, as he does not want to be labeled homeless. What do these two facts, along with his initial struggles to adjust to and learn about urban American life, tell you about Deo’s character? Can you imagine yourself feeling as he does or do you think his reaction is simply “Burundian”? 

4. Kidder writes, “When Deo first told me about his beginnings in New York, I had a simple thought: ‘I would not have survived’ ” (p. 161). Do you think you could have survived what Deo survived? Why or why not? 

5. How do Deo’s experiences on the run in Burundi compare to his experiences in New York City? What are the common themes? How do the dangers differ? How does human compassion figure in these two journeys? 

6. From the moment Deo arrives in New York, he finds people who are willing to help him. Discuss the ways in which Muhammad the baggage handler, Sharon, Nancy and Charlie, and James O’Malley helped Deo get on his feet. What do you think it was about Deo that compelled these people to help him? What was it about them? Would he have survived without them? 

7. Paul Farmer is another person who has had a large influence on Deo. Describe Deo’s relationship with Farmer and the ways in which they change each other’s lives. 

8. While a student at Columbia, Deo recalls that in Burundi, he “had seen people pushed away from hospitals, not only when they had no money, but sometimes just because they were dirty and smelled bad. Now news that a relative was ill would keep him worrying for days, imagining that his mother or a sibling might even now be receiving such treatment” (p. 109). What does this statement tell you about Deo’s thoughts and goals while studying biochemistry at Columbia? Why do you think Deo maintained this perspective? How does this sentiment complement, reflect, or contrast with the views and concerns of Paul Farmer or of Partners in Health? 

9. While Deo is working with Farmer and Joia Mukherjee at Partners in Health in Boston, Joia remarks, “Offensive things are so offensive to him. Understandably. It’s just like he has no skin. Everything just penetrates so much” (p. 156). What does Joia mean by this? Do her words ring true? 

10. Throughout his life, Deo struggles to trust himself, other people, and even God. As he tours Columbia with Kidder in 2006, he says, “I do believe in God. I think God has given so much power to people, and intelligence, and said, ‘Well, you are on your own. Maybe I’m tired, I need a nap. You are mature. Why don’t you look after yourselves?’ And I think he’s been sleeping too much” (p. 186). Discuss this quote in relation to Deo’s views on faith. 

11. The power of memory is a theme that runs throughout the book. In the Introduction, Deo explains that people in the Western world try to remember the tragedies of their pasts, while people in Burundi try to forget them. Trace Deo’s evolution as he journeys from Burundi to Rwanda to the United States and back again, focusing on the changing role memory plays in his life. 

12. Joia makes an interesting point about how different people deal with horrible experiences like genocide. Her own father, having survived massacres during the partition of India, refused to talk about what he saw. Instead, he lived a life of hypochondria, always fearing that death was just around the corner. Deo eventually “let it spew out all the time” (p. 157), while an Auschwitz survivor Kidder meets also chose silence until he reached old age. The survivor tells Kidder, “The problem is, once you start talking it’s very difficult to stop. It’s almost impossible to stop” (p. 160). Discuss the values and weaknesses of each coping strategy. Do you think we have control over how we process our memories and guilt? 

13. Toward the end of the book, as Kidder reflects on what he has seen and learned through Deo, he thinks about the value of “flush[ing] out and dissect[ing] one’s memories” (as Westerners are prone to do) and wonders whether there is such a thing as “too much remembering, that too much of it could suffocate a person, and indeed a culture” (p. 248). After reading Deo’s story, what do you think? Do you agree that “there was something to be said for a culture with a word like gusimbura” (p. 248)? Why or why not? 

14. In Burundi, village elders would say, “When too much is too much or too bad is too bad, we laugh as if it was too good” (p. 36). What does this saying mean? How can it be applied to Deo’s upbringing? How does its meaning affect Deo’s views, particularly toward American life? 

15. Deo relates that in Burundi, people’s names tell stories, or serve as social commentary about the circumstances of the person’s birth or social position. These names, he says, are amazina y’ikuzo, “names for growth” (p. 34). Why is this concept so important in Burundian society? Are the names of the Burundian individuals to whom Kidder introduces us accurate? 

16. Against his family’s wishes, Deo returns to Burundi often after his initial escape. Why does he go back so many times? Discuss the relationship he has with the people of his country, and why he tells Kidder that no matter how tempting, he cannot “reject all the obli - gations of family, and even of affection, and . . . become a loner in the world, never setting foot in one’s old life” (p. 208). 

17. When Deo was first in New York, Kidder writes, “He told himself, ‘No one is in control of his own life’ ” (p. 164). Do you believe no one is in control of his own life? Do you think Deo believes it, at the end of Kidder’s book? 

18. Deo accomplishes the seemingly impossible, working with Paul Farmer and Partners in Health to set up his dream clinic in Kigutu in 2008. The clinic has become “a place of reconciliation for everyone, including [Deo].” As he tells a woman who comes to the clinic and apologizes to him for what he assumes is violence against his family during the war: “What happened happened. Let’s work on the clinic. Lets put this tragedy behind us, because remembering is not going to benefit anyone” (p. 259). How does Deo reach this point in his life? What do you think is next for him?  

Teacher's Guide



NOTE TO TEACHERS

Teachers: If you'd like a printable version of this guide, download the PDF attachment at the bottom of this page.

"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

Note to Teachers
Strength in What Remains (hereinafter Strength), recounts the story of Deogratias (Deo) – his flight from civil war in Burundi and Rwanda to homelessness in Central Park, New York City, to graduation from Columbia University, and to the fulfillment of the dream of his youth: to build a health care clinic in his homeland, free to those who can't pay. Deo grows up in Burundi, and eventually becomes a United States citizen.

In September, 1993, while Deo is in his third year of medical school, the president of Burundi is assassinated.  Ethnic civil war ensues. Through the recounting of Deo's experiences of survival against all odds, Kidder provides us a window into the devolution of a country and a people. While it's difficult to read about such tragedies, Kidder compels the reader to be a witness to the inhuman conditions that afflict many of the impoverished regions of the world. Deo's experience is also one of redemption, of overcoming the morbid absurdities of human nature to become what he always has been – a healer.

Notably, Kidder, while astute and thorough in recounting and substantiating Deo's story, is not the detached observer of events for this book. Through writing about his own fear and reservations as Deo guides him on a tour of six months of terror, the reader is allowed to witness, to some extent, the horrors Deo also endured. By communicating to the reader his own attempts to conceal his reactions from Deo, and by acknowledging the intrusive nature of his own questioning, Kidder gives us the latitude to accept and work through our own emotions, misconceptions, and misunderstandings as we address some of the profound social, psychological, and political issues raised in Strength.

This guide is separated into three sections, Style and Structure, Comprehension and Discussion, and Personal Essays.  The prompts in the first two sections are constructed for the purpose of fostering classroom and group discussion. The intent of the Personal Essay section is to cull in-depth reflective and/or investigative individual responses.

Finally, as you read this account of life over death, please take the time to visit Deo's Village Health Works clinic at http://www.villagehealthworks.org/. There, you will realize that Deo's youthful, "primal sympathy which having been must ever be" is an enduring strength.


About the Author
Tracy Kidder was born on November 12, 1945, in New York City. He graduated from Harvard and served as a lieutenant in Vietnam.  After returning from the war, he enrolled in a masters of fine arts program at the University of Iowa, at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. There, Kidder met a contributing editor to the Atlantic Monthly. The editor helped him get his first assignment with the magazine in 1973.  Kidder is now a contributing editor to that magazine and continues to publish articles in other magazines, such as the New Yorker.  He has also published a Pulitzer Prize-winning non-fiction work, The Soul of a New Machine (1981).  His other works include House (1985), Among Schoolchildren (1989), Old Friends (1993), Home Town (1999), Mountains Beyond Mountains (2003), and My Detachment, A Memoir (2005).

Style and Structure
1. Strength is composed of a short prologue and two sections: 1) Flights and 2) Gusimbura. In the Flights section, Kidder writes in the restricted third person. The reader understands the 1990s upheaval in the African countries of Burundi and Rwanda through Deo's experiences. Deo also describes surviving the immigrant experience in New York City. In general, his African flights recount how he physically survived; in New York, his flights of survival are mostly psychological. The second section of the book, Gusimbura, is written in the first person – giving a voice not just to Deo, but also to the author, and to individuals integral to the redemption of Deo, his intellectual fortitude, and his childhood aspirations. Discuss the structure of the book. What kind of effect does it have on the reading experience?

2.  Strength opens with a post-genocide account of Deo returning to his family's former home in Butanza, Burundi. The author accompanies Deo on this trip. Deo warns Kidder not to mention Deo's friend, Clovis, by name when they arrive in Butanza. To do so would gusimbura (a Kirundi term) all those who knew Clovis. To gusimbura someone, means that an individual, upon hearing the name of a dead loved one, is forced to relive the suffering and sorrow of that loved one's death.  Why do you think Kidder opens the book with this incident?

3. The title of this nonfiction work is derived from a William Wordsworth poem, "Ode 536: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood."  An excerpt of the poem is reprinted in the front of Strength. Read the full-length poem and draw thematic comparisons between it and Strength, specifically as it relates to the following quote from Chapter 5:
"In her company . . .  he could talk as if he still imagined himself becoming a doctor, even though, as it had been from the start, this was usually just a way of telling her who he used to be."
Wordsworth's poem can be found online at http://www.bartleby.com/101/536.html

Comprehension and Discussion
FLIGHTS
1. Birth names are contextual in Deo's Burundian culture. For instance, his mother named him "Deogratias" (meaning, "thanks to god"), because she nearly died in childbirth. As you read about Deo's journey, consider and discuss the meanings of the names of people whom he meets. Research your own name's origin and meaning. What do you think about the significance of names? Do they reveal anything about the person? Does your name reveal anything about you?

2. In the first few chapters, Deo compares his first experiences in New York City with his experiences growing up in Burundi. What does he conclude?  Do these conclusions change over time? Explain.

3. Deo is hired as a deliveryman by a food store chain and is unfortunately mistreated by Goss, the manager of the store. Although Deo has been humiliated many times before in his life, especially by his teachers, he considers his mistreatment by Goss and the building superintendants unbearable (Chapter 5).  Why does Deo feel this way?  Do you think he is justified? Explain.

4. In Chapter 4, Deo is befriended by Sharon McKenna, who makes Deo's redemption her personal quest. How does Deo feel about her interventions?  Why do you think she is so insistent? 

5. In Chapter 6, there is a verbal exchange between Deo and a fellow African American health care worker at Fair Oaks Nursing Home. Why is Deo confused by this exchange?

6. In Chapter 7, Deo's grandmother blames a neighboring family for Deo's bout with malaria.  Is there merit to her accusation? What does it say about traditional beliefs and cultural values?

7. Analyze this statement from Chapter 7:
"He would come to feel that history, even more than memory, distorts the present of the past by focusing on big events and making one forget that most people living in the present are otherwise preoccupied, that for them omens often don't exist."

8. In Chapter 8, Deo recites a W.E.B. Dubois poem The Souls of Black Folk on the subway:
"He felt the weight of his ignorance, not simply of letters, but of life, of business, of the humanities; the accumulated sloth and shirking and awkwardness of decades and centuries shackled his hands and feet."  How might this statement sum up the plight of Burundi? 

9. This same Dubois poem also includes the following lines: "To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships." How does this statement sum up Deo's life in New York City?

10. In Chapter 8, Deo's tears are replaced by laughter. Why?

GUSIMBURA
1. Why is Deo's account of his interaction with the Russian journalist on the flight to New York City so crushing to him after all he had been through in Burundi?

2. What does Deo's vivid memory of the baby at its dead mother's breast represent to him?

3. Kidder interviews Dr. Joia Mukherjee. Describe her interpretation of Deo.

4. Kidder interviews Dr. Paul Farmer. Describe his interpretation of Deo.

5. According to Deo, becoming a member of Partners in Health was like a whole world opening for him. Why?

6. In Chapter 10, Deo provides his reasoning for refusing psychiatric care: "It's true that I really had, I still do have all these problems. There's no way that they will go away from me. But I deal with them the way I can." What do you think about Deo's philosophy and his decision to forego treatment?

7. As Deo recounts his life to Kidder, Kidder concludes, "I would not have survived." Discuss some of Deo's qualities that enabled his survival. Do you think you would have survived under similar circumstances?

8. What does Deo realize about the demographics of New York City while spending the day lost in the subway system? What are the connections, if any, between the demographics of NYC and his Burundian homeland? 

9. Kidder interviews Charlie and Nancy Wolff. Describe their interpretations of Deo.

10. Kidder interviews Sharon McKenna. Describe her interpretations of Deo.

11. Magenta is a purplish red color. Why do you suppose Sharon sees Deo's color as magenta?

12. During a telephone conversation with Charlie Wolf, Sharon tells Charlie that Deo needs a family. Use the interactions between Sharon and Deo leading up to that first dinner with the Wolf's to explain why Sharon has come to this conclusion.

13. Describe the significance of the door left open in the Mutaho hospital.

14. Deo says that misery is the primary cause of genocide. Do you agree? Explain.

15. In Chapter 13, Kidder accompanies Deo on a return visit to Burundi.  On this trip, Kidder's relationship with Deo changes.  How and why does it change?

16. Deo has used the term "like" on a number of occasions throughout Strength when he describes various situations that have occurred in his life. In Chapter 17, the term is prominent in his discourse as he shows Kidder the memorial at Murambi.  What is the significance of Deo's choice and use of this word while describing the memorial?

17. In Chapter 17, compare Kidder's reaction to visiting the memorial in Murambi to his reaction to visiting the hospital in Mutaho.

18. In the final pages of Chapter 18, while recounting the suicide of a Belgian colonial after the Belgians left Burundi, Deo laughs. We also know that Deo suppressed laughter while hiding among corpses (Chapter 9). These reactions appear to be inconsistent with the Deo, who, as a child, couldn't bear the slaughter of a family cow (Chapter 3). Discuss these inappropriate reactions. What do they indicate about Deo's personality? What do they say about the culture in which he grew up?

19. In the epilogue, Deo recounts the story of a mother who is among a group of Burundian volunteers who help him build a road to his clinic. Three of her children have already died and she carries another sick child of hers as she works.  She explains that she'd rather build a road to a health clinic that will help other children than stay at home to watch her child's inevitable death  [The mother's picture is number 19 on the gallery page of the Village Health Works website: http://www.villagehealthworks.org/Work/Gallery.htm.]   Another Burundian woman says, "You will not pay a penny for this road. We become so much sick because we are poor, but we are not poor because we are lazy." Discuss the resolve of the Burundian people. Why do you think, that even at all costs, they are so committed to seeing Deo's dream become a reality?

Personal Essay
1. In Chapter 13, Kidder provides a synopsis of historical events leading up to the disintegration of order and the rise of chaos in Burundi and Rwanda. He quotes Peter Uvin, "social exclusion and the ethnicization of politics . . . are the two central elements to violent conflict in Burundi and Rwanda that, like electrons, spin around a core of massive poverty and institutional weakness."  Support or refute this conclusion by using examples from Strength. (Works of Peter Uvin are noted in the sources section of Strength. One excellent, ready-reference, "Structural Causes, Development Cooperation and Conflict Prevention in Burundi and Rwanda," is available online.)

2. In response to Kidder's question about studying philosophy, Deo says, "I wanted to understand what had happened to me." In Chapter 11, Kidder begins to consider the role of providence in Deo's survival. Deo, in fact, was physically (he made weekly fourteen hour treks to the family's vegetable fields) and intellectually (he knew his plants and could diagnose the condition of his own body) fit to withstand the terror he endured. Analyze the roles that philosophy, providence, and evolution play in Deo's life. Of the three, choose which role you think is most pertinent to Deo's survival.

3. In Chapter 16, Deo compares his land to the setting of Joseph Conrad's novella, Heart of Darkness. Compare and contrast Conrad's work with what you have learned about the Burundian civil war and Rwandan genocide.

4. In the epilogue of Strength, Kidder suggests the role international organizations and international aid played in the terror perpetrated in Burundi and Rwanda (the poorest of countries). Describe this role. Support or refute this role by citing reliable sources.

5. In second grade, Deo read a book of fables. One fable, "What Killed You, Head," deeply affected him (Chapter 3). The moral of the story is that a fool is one who talks too much. In another instance, a rebellious medical student compares Deo to a beheaded snake (Chapter 7). As Deo recounts his life in flight, he alludes to gruesome scenes involving severed heads. Analyze these and other references of detachment in Strength.  What message (or messages) do they deliver about evolving or devolving societies?

6. The Kirundi term gusimbura recurs throughout this book. Analyze its meaning.  Is its meaning more akin to being silent, forgetting, or forgiving? Explain.

7. A survival theme in Strength centers on education. Deo's father convinces Grandfather Lonjino to continue the education of Deo's uncle.  Deo's father and mother, convinced that education is the way of advancement for their children, ensure that their children attend school. Though Deo's education is interrupted by civil war and genocide, he eventually achieves an advanced education. Examine the qualities of Deo's character which you think compelled him to persevere.

8. Family bonds are strong in Burundian culture.  Because of the amount of time Deo spends being cared for by his grandfather, Lonjino, they developed an extremely close bond. What qualities remain with Deo as a result of this bond?

9. Deo meets Dr. Paul Farmer in Boston. Farmer becomes his professional mentor and a dear friend. Farmer is also instrumental in helping Deo realize his dream of building a free health clinic in Kigutu, Burundi. These men and their experiences are similar in many ways but are also in many ways vastly different. For instance, in Strength, Deo observes that Farmer "didn't sleep much either." However Deo surmises that Farmer's "sleeplessness, unlike his own, was self-imposed and purposeful, and therefore admirable." (Chapter 10). After reading Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder's 2003 account of Dr. Paul Farmer's life and work as co-founder of Partners in Health, compare and contrast the characteristics and experiences of the two men.

Other Works of Interest:
God Grew Tired of Us by John Bul Dau
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Life Laid Bare: The Survivors in Rwanda Speak by Jean Hatzfeld; Translated by Linda Coverdale
A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah
Outcasts United by Warren St. John
Six Months in Sudan: A Young Doctor in a War-Torn Village by Dr. James Maskalyk
Tears of the Desert: A Memoir of Survival in Darfur by Halima Bashir with Damien Lewis
The Translator by Daoud Hari
We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch

For other books, consult the bibliography of Strength.


About This Guide's Writer:  Judith Turner is an Assistant Principal at Terrace Community Middle School, in Thonotosassa, Florida. She has held Subject Area Leader positions in Language Arts and Social Studies. Ms. Turner received her B.A. in English from the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay, and her Masters in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from the University of South Florida, Tampa.

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  • Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder
  • May 04, 2010
  • Biography & Autobiography
  • Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • $16.00
  • 9780812977615

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