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?
NOTE TO TEACHERSTeachers: 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 ReviewsNote to Teachers
Strength in What Remains
), 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
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?
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
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?
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 DauHeart of Darkness
by Joseph ConradInfidel
by Ayaan Hirsi AliLife Laid Bare: The Survivors in Rwanda Speak
by Jean Hatzfeld; Translated by Linda CoverdaleA Long Way Gone
by Ishmael BeahOutcasts United
by Warren St. JohnSix Months in Sudan: A Young Doctor in a War-Torn Village
by Dr. James MaskalykTears of the Desert: A Memoir of Survival in Darfur
by Halima Bashir with Damien LewisThe Translator
by Daoud HariWe 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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