Northampton was the perfect place to meet Tracy Kidder.
The winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award (for The Soul of a New Machine, Back Bay, 1981) wrote about Northampton, Mass., in Home Town (Random, 1991), describing it as “the kind of town a lot of Americans think they would like to live in, think they used to live in. The truth is of course that Main Street, USA, doesn't exist and never did exist, thank God.”
It is Kidder's particular sleight of hand that renders the familiar mysterious—apparent in his books House (Houghton Mifflin, 1999), chronicling a couple building their own home, and Among Schoolchildren (Avon, 1989), in which he followed a Holyoke, Mass., schoolteacher for a year. But Kidder says, “There's nothing ordinary about any human being. We all walk around with the most complex structure in the known universe perched on our shoulders. The question of why we do what we do is always very complicated and to me it's always interesting.” With patience, however, and some sleight of hand of one's own, Kidder, 63, can be persuaded to admit that his two books to venture outside of New England are devoted to particularly important material.
In the bestselling Mountains Beyond Mountains (Random, 2003) he spent three years traveling with Dr. Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health, a revolutionary initiative based in central Haiti that treats AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria and provides food, shelter, clean water and education to the population. The recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, Farmer is, in Kidder's words, the “least ordinary ordinary person.”
“Here was someone who seemed to be practicing more than he preached, who seemed to be living, as nearly as any human being can, without hypocrisy.... [W]ith credentials like his, I'd imagined someone dour and self-righteous, but he was very friendly and irreverent and quite funny. He seemed like someone I'd like to know, and I thought that if I did my job well, a reader would feel that way, too.”
Kidder's latest book, Strength in What Remains (Random House), hinges on an equally charismatic character, but is singular in Kidder's canon: “I've never written a book that was so event-driven, that had so much jet fuel.”
The book follows Deo, a bright and almost impossibly appealing student from Burundi, as he escapes the harrowing Hutu-Tutsi conflict and arrives as a refugee in New York City with only $200 and no acquaintances in the city. After a stint sleeping in Central Park, he worked menial jobs through which he attracted various champions, which led to his acceptance into Columbia University and Harvard Medical School, where Kidder met him.
It was the story of Deo's early days—and difficulties—in New York that made Kidder realize he had a book on his hands.
“When he mentioned that while living in Central Park, he would look both ways before entering the park at night to make sure that no one was watching, I realized, Of course. Years ago, when my daughter was 12, my wife had taken her to New York City. It was raining and my daughter's glasses were falling apart, and she started across the street. She was about to get mowed down by 16 taxis and my wife screamed. When they finally got to the other side, my daughter turned to my wife in a cold fury and said, 'Thanks a lot, Mom, for ruining my reputation in New York City.' There's an embarrassment you feel among strangers that you wouldn't feel among friends. And somehow this memory brought home to me what it might have been like for Deo: to be without language, to seem like a nitwit on the subway.”
Complicating the narration of Deo's story and the violence he narrowly survived are the roots of the conflict in Burundi itself, so tangled in the legacy of Belgian colonial occupation and the stark poverty that persists, and gusimbura, a societal taboo against bringing up painful memories.
“I wanted it as Deo told it to me, and I wanted it spare,” Kidder says. “I tell the story as he told it to me and then I tell it again as we go back to Burundi together and in a way it's not just talking about memory but watching memory, live memories and the torment of memory.”
Today, Deo has opened a clinic in Burundi and works closely with Farmer's Partners in Health. Last year he saw more than 20,000 patients. According to Kidder, “The clinic has been a great thing for Deo, a way out of a trap. You don't get over this thing. We don't get over things. We don't live long enough to get over our childhoods, even if they were model.”
|Parul Sehgal is a PW nonfiction and audio reviews editor.