"Strength in What Remains" was the 2012 All Iowa Reads written by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Tracy Kidder. It tells the true story of Deogratias a native of Burundi, the tiny country nestled between Rwanda and Tanzania in eastern central Africa. Deo, as he’s referred to in the book, narrowly escapes the genocide and civil war that ravages Rwanda and Burundi in early 1994 and finds himself in New York City with only $200 to his name. Though he doesn’t speak English, Deo gets a job delivering groceries and faces the harsh realities known to many immigrants: hunger, homelessness and, despite the horrors he has witnessed in his native country, homesickness. Prior to fleeing Africa Deo was in his third year of medical school on his way to becoming a doctor. Eventually, albeit not easily, he finds favor with a series of good Samaritan New Yorkers who get him back on his feet and back into school.
Throughout the book Kidder takes the reader back and forth between Africa and the United States, beginning with Deo’s flight from Burundi to New York in 1994. As the story unfolds we catch glimpses of Deo’s childhood, adolescence, and school years, all intwined with the story of his arrival in the United States. Although I appreciate Kidder’s attempts to meld Deo’s past and present, the progression comes off as disjointed, even forced. By skimming the text on the back cover the reader learns that Deo finds his way to “Columbia University, medical school, and a life devoted to healing.” With this prior knowledge, the sporadic plot fails in its goal of lending suspense and drama to an already incredible, profound, heartbreaking and awe-inspiring story. Kidder injects himself unnecessarily in the last third of the book, narrating in first person as he accompanies Deo back to Africa on a journey to build a rural medical clinic. The history of the Burundian/Rwandan genocide and civil war Kidder gives in the last third of the book could have better supplemented the accounts of Deo’s life growing up in Africa; rather it read like a hasty, afterthought of a lecture.
Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this book, more so for the characters Kidder brings to life than for his story telling abilities. Having grown up without war, famine and disease it is hard to empathize with Deo, but it’s hard not to admire him for his resilience and outlook on life (which, understandably so, is not always rose-colored). And while it is difficult to read about the atrocities and injustices depicted in Strength in What Remains, but I think that is one of the reasons this selection was a good one for the All Iowa Reads program. Too often it is easy to forget what happens outside of our own little worlds, and it takes stories like Deo’s to remind us that there are more important things in life and that our attitudes and character define and shape us in many ways.