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On Our Bookshelves – Strength in What Remains

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BOOK: Strength in What Remains

AUTHOR: Tracy Kidder

YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2009

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Before I picked up Strength in What Remains, I read two other books by Tracy Kidder, both of which I thought were well written, but not extremely compelling or original.  Among Schoolchildren is the story of a year in a  fifth grade classroom in a public school in the United States, and having gone to public schools in the US, and having my children attend public schools in the US, there was nothing particularly new for me there (yes, good teachers work hard, teaching is a difficult job, children are complicated, and so on), although it may be an interesting read for someone unfamiliar with the environment, or perhaps for a cultural historian in the distant future.  Small Town, a look at Northampton, Massachusetts, and the people who lived there in the 1990s, including a police officer, the mayor, and a struggling single mother, is perfectly fine as a portrait of a community–but also did not do anything to enlighten me, as I was already quite familiar with the culture Kidder depicted.  

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Strength in What Remains, however, brought me to some quite unfamiliar environs.  It tells the story of Deogratias “Deo” Nyizonkiza, a young man from Burundi, who survived the civil war and genocide in his home country and in Rwanda, and fled to the United States in 1994, where he struggled to maintain a precarious existence (he was a non-English speaker, living in abandoned buildings and in Central Park, barely getting by on the $15 a day he earned delivering groceries).  Along the way, he was severely traumatized, burdened with the immense losses of family members and friends, the alienation of a new and unfriendly place, and extreme poverty. Also along the way, he was rescued, repeatedly, by ordinary people who helped him–from a woman in a banana grove who claimed to be his mother and saved him from militiamen who were rounding up Tutsis, to his wealthy friend who arranged a business visa and a cash gift of $200 and got him on a plane to JFK, to the baggage handler at the airport who took pity on him and gave him a place to sleep when he arrived in New York, to a former nun who took him under her wing and introduced him to the benefactors who eventually paid for his education and his immigration attorney, and provided him with a home. 

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Deo, who had been a medical student in his home country, ended up graduating from Columbia University, attending the Harvard School of Public Health, working for the medical non-profit organization Partners in Health with Dr. Paul Farmer, then attending Dartmouth Medical School, and eventually returning to Burundi to build a health clinic and found a non-profit organization, Village Health Works. (The book ends there, but Village Health Works has grown considerably in the past ten years. Besides basic health care, the organization also focuses on education, food security, economic prosperity, and community engagement, training teachers, feeding students, supporting farming and livestock co-ops, and sustaining community cooperative programs that help create economic opportunities and provide the tools necessary to lift participants out of poverty.) 

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Deo’s story is amazing, vivid, and well-told.  The parts of the book which covered his early life, his experience as a refugee, his intercontinental flight, his homelessness in New York City, and  how he found a home, learned English, and began school–those were brilliant, beautiful and painful both, and profoundly moving.  

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The last third of the book did not work as well.  The author inserted himself, in my opinion, far too much into the story–when Kidder and Deo traveled to Burundi together, the writing wasn’t nearly as strong.  It’s far less interesting to read about the journalist’s experience than it is to read about the protagonist’s experience. The narrative became somewhat confusing, as well…the non-chronological structure worked, up to a point, but several important scenes were covered more than once–we were given some stories directly, plainly told in the third person, and then again, via the author’s interaction with Deo, told in first person, leading to unnecessary repetition.  And then, some important developments were given short shrift–like Deo’s decision to leave medical school and begin a non-profit, which was glossed over.  

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In short, it’s a good book that had potential to be great, and could have been so with a strong editor and a timeline that made more sense.  (Both a personal timeline and a Burundi timeline would have been useful here, as well as a map.)

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Strength in What Remains is well worth reading, however, despite its flaws. I very much appreciate the title, referencing a portion of William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” as follows:

What though the radiance which was once so bright
be now for ever taken from my sight,
though nothing can bring back the hour
of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
we will grieve not, rather find
strength in what remains behind.”

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And I appreciate Deo: his resilience, thoughtfulness, courage, keen intelligence, dedication, and determination to improve his home country, even as he struggled with his own trauma, and with the unanswerable questions of good and evil, and his attempts to reconcile his personal horrific experiences with a belief in a just God.  

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Deo’s story (and others like it) need to be told, and need to be remembered.  His conviction that misery, ignorance, poverty, hunger, and disease lead to brutality and indiscriminate slaughter, is an important insight and one we should keep in mind.  Since his arrival in NYC in 1994, the US immigration laws and policies have only become harsher, and more inhumane. New York City has become wealthier, and crime has decreased, but homelessness is a growing problem, and the wealth disparity now is the greatest in the nation.  It pains me to think that if Deo instead arrived today, that the city would be even less welcoming to an impoverished, undocumented newcomer, however brilliant and determined he might be.

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Read Strength in What Remains, learn Deo’s story, and take it to heart.  Perhaps one day, you, or I, will be that woman in the banana grove, that minimum wage baggage handler, that attorney who takes what looks to be a hopeless case, or that journalist who shines a light on what the powers that be would prefer to remain in darkness.

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RATING (one to five whistles, with five being the best): 3 1/2 Whistles

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HOW TO PURCHASE: Amazon

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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com

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Lead-In Image (Book Cover Design Elements) Courtesy of Penguin Random House

strength in what remians - book cover - penguin random house

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ALSO ON OUR BOOKSHELVES:

A Countess Below Stairs, Eva Ibbotson

A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles

A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman

A Patchwork Planet, Anne Tyler

A Room With a View, E.M. Forster

After the Fall, Dan Santat

An English Murder, Cyril Hare

An Infamous Army, Georgette Heyer

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Anne Of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery

Ayesha at Last,

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RATING (one to five whistles, with five being the best): 3 1/2 Whistles

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HOW TO PURCHASE: Amazon

***

Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com

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ALSO ON OUR BOOKSHELVES:

A Countess Below Stairs, Eva Ibbotson

A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles

A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman

A Patchwork Planet, Anne Tyler

A Room With a View, E.M. Forster

After the Fall, Dan Santat

An English Murder, Cyril Hare

An Infamous Army, Georgette Heyer

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Anne Of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery

Ayesha at Last, Uzma Jalaluddin

Before the Fall, Noah Hawley

Bleak House, Charles Dickens

Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon

Bonjour Tristesse, Francoise Sagan

Books for Living, Will Schwalbe

Bunker Hill, Nathan Philbrick

Burmese Days, George Orwell

Cannery Row, John Steinbeck

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast

Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White

Cheaper by the Dozen, Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. & Ernestine Gilbreth Carey

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

Cloudstreet, Tim Winton

Cockpit Confidential, Patrick Smith

Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons

Death in Profile, Guy Fraser-Sampson

Decorating a Room of One’s Own, Susan Harlan

Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill

Diary of a Provincial Lady, E.M. Delafield

Doctor Jazz, Hayden Carruth

Ed Emberly’s Drawing Book of Animals, Ed Emberly

Endangered Pleasures, Barbara Holland

Envious Casca, Georgette Heyer

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

Fever Dream, Samanta Schweblin

Foreign Affairs, Alison Lurie

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, E.L. Konigsburg

Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers

Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee

Good Poems, Garrison Keillor

Gowanus Waters, Steven Hirsch

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, & Jack Thorne

Heads in Beds, Jacob Tomsky

Hemingway Didn’t Say That, Garson O’Toole

Here is New York, E.B. White

Hide My Eyes, Margery Allingham

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, Laurie Colwin

Hyperbole and a Half, Allie Brosh

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou

I Will Always Write Back, Caitlin Alifirenka & Martin Ganda with Liz Welch

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Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke

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Madeleine’s Ghost, Robert Girardi

Malice Aforethought, Frances Iles

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Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, Jon Krakauer

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Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

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Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell

Notorious RBG, Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik

On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder

One Summer: America 1927, Bill Bryson

Out of the Blackout, Robert Bernard

Parnassus on Wheels & The Haunted Bookshop, Christopher Morley

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Possession, A.S. Byatt

Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle…and Other Modern Verse, Stephen Dunning, Edward Lueders, and Hugh Smith

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Rose Madder, Stephen King

Sanditon, Jane Austen and Another Lady

Selected Poems of Langston Hughes

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Carlo Rivelli

Sing and Shine On!, Nick Page

Sorcery and Cecelia: Or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot, Patricia Wrede & Caroline Stevermer

Straying from the Flock: Travels in New Zealand, Alexander Elder

Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart

Tales of the Unexpected, Roald Dahl

The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Ed., Lewis Carroll & Martin Gardner (with original illustrations by John Tenniel)

The Book of Forgotten Authors, Christopher Fowler

The Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith

The Dancer of Izu, Kawabata Yasunari

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson

The House with a Clock in Its Walls, John Bellairs

The Ice House, Minette Walters

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

The Longbourn Letters, Rose Servitova

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., Adelle Waldman

The Making of Jane Austen, Devoney Looser

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, Oliver Sacks

The Martian, Andy Weir

The Missing Piece, Shel Silverstein

The Modern Kids, Jona Frank

The Monogram Murders, Sophie Hannah

The Mother & Child Project, Hope Through Healing Hands (ed.)

The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, Thad Carhart

The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark

The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion

The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss, Theodor Geisel (illustrator), Maurice Sendak (introduction)

The Snowy Day, Ezra Jack Keats

The Swans of Fifth Avenue, Melanie Benjamin

The Tale of Despereaux, Kate DiCamillo

The Tender Bar, J.R. Moehringer

The Three Questions, Jon J Muth

The Translator, Nina Schuyler

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce

The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories, Saki

The War on Normal People, Andrew Yang

The Weird World of Wes Beattie, John Norman Harris

The Westing Game, Ellen Raskin

The Woman in Black, Susan Hill

The Women in Black, Madeleine St John

They Call Me Naughty Lola, David Rose

Thing Explainer, Randall Munroe

Ways of Seeing, John Berger

What If?, Randall Munroe

When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi

Worth a Thousand Words, Brigit Young

You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life, Eleanor Roosevelt

Up At the Villa, W. Somerset Maugham

84, Charing Cross Road, Helene Hanff

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