Rating: ★★★★★ 

Strength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder.  Random House (2009), 277 pages.

Kidder tells the story in Strength in What Remains of Deo, a young man from Burundi who survives the Hutu/Tutsi massacres in 1994 and arrives in New York City with only $200, no knowledge of English, no friends or family, and a psyche so traumatized that he doesn’t always know if he is living in the past or the present.  Though Deo manages, miraculously, to find a job, learn English, and eventually go to medical school, I did not set this book down with the kind of hopefulness and optimism that the title suggests.  The chapters describing the genocide in Burundi and Rwanda are so emotionally overwhelming that I never really recovered from them enough to take any satisfaction in Deo’s accomplishments.

Part of what makes genocide so much more difficult to read about than other sorts of massacres is that it is not random or spontaneous.  It is the planned slaughter of an entire people.  And since this particular genocide was carried about by people living in poverty, the weapons at hand were not guns, but machetes and gasoline.  How people actually pour gasoline on their neighbors and set them on fire, how they chop the heads off of children—children they know, from their own neighborhoods— is something my mind can not absorb.

Though the content of this book is unbearable, both the writing and the way Kidder structures the book are perfect.  In the first half, he tells Deo’s story in the third person, then in the second half switches to first person and writes about his experience of meeting Deo and traveling back to Burundi with him.  He describes the history of the animosity between the Hutu and Tutsi in a way that makes it absolutely clear how such rage could have developed.  (As usual, a colonizing country—in this case Belgium—turned a few difficulties between the two groups into a split that destroyed them but served the Belgian’s needs well.)  Kidder also answers a question I had almost immediately after learning that Deo was taken in by total strangers in New York.  Who are these people who took it upon themselves to rescue a homeless man who didn’t even speak English?  The author’s chapters about these saints (really, they are), Sharon McKenna and Nancy and Charlie Wolf, helped to counteract, at least a tiny bit, the desolation I was left with after reading the sections on the genocide.

It’s hard to recommend a book that is sure to leave the reader in a state of hopelessness and despair—nevertheless Strength in What Remains is one of the best books of 2009.

Here Deo describes what he saw upon arriving at the airport in New York City: “Wheeled carts in which infants rode like little princes, their parents pushing them.  And people in suits, so many people in the uniform of preachers and government ministers.  Almost everyone looked happy.  Or at least no one looked alarmed.  And no one looked terrified.  These were people just going about their business, greeting their friends and their families, as if they didn’t know there were places where dogs were trotting around with human heads in their mouths.”

Reviewed by Cindy Blackett