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Originally published Sunday, August 30, 2009 at 12:06 AM

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Book review

'Strength in What Remains': from horror to healing

Tracy Kidder's new book "Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness" is the story of Deo, an African medical student with an inspiring saga of escape, redemption and return to his native Burundi.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness"

by Tracy Kidder

Random House, 277 pp., $30

Tracy Kidder's new book "Strength in What Remains" is an African medical student's story of struggle, redemption and return, a narrative infused with a broad, universal appeal and occasional touches of brilliance.

In 1994, Deo (short for Deogratias, "Thanks be to God" in Latin), a medical student from Burundi (located in Central Africa), arrives in New York City. Prior to his departure, Deo, a Tutsi, had been on the run for months. The genocidal conflict between Hutus and Tutsis had spilled over into Burundi from neighboring Rwanda, and he barely managed to escape the mass slaughter with the help of a well-off friend.

In New York, survival again proves to be a challenge for Deo. Though he's fluent in French, his English is limited and he has no funds or contacts. The money he makes by delivering groceries to wealthy homes fails to cover basic necessities, and he's soon reduced to sleeping in a park. Undaunted, he spends his spare time in libraries and book stores, trying to learn English so he can return to his medical studies. His ultimate ambition is to return to Burundi as a physician and provide medical care to the poor.

Soon Deo's integrity, persistence, and good nature attract the attention of a kindly ex-nun. She persuades a generous childless couple to give him free room and board in their apartment. He eventually enrolls in Columbia University for undergraduate work, again with the help of benefactors and, in time, he graduates.

Despite these changes in fortune, Deo can't forget the carnage he'd witnessed in his motherland. He spends many a sleepless night crying out in pain, always taking solace in a Burundian saying: "When too much is too much or too bad is too bad, we laugh as if it was too good."

A chance meeting in 2001 with Dr. Paul Farmer (the subject of "Mountains Beyond Mountains," Kidder's Pulitzer-Prize-winning 2003 book) changes the course of Deo's life. He accepts a job offer from Dr. Farmer's worldwide organization, Partners in Health (PIH). Although he never receives a medical degree, his administrative position at PIH allows him to indirectly serve the sick in many countries.

Kidder first meets Deo in 2003. "Deo's face jumped out at me," Kidder writes, recalling the encounter. "It was a night sky full of lights, a picture of eager, trusting friendliness."

Over a period of time, their friendship deepens. Listening to Deo talk about his beginnings in New York, Kidder muses: "I wouldn't have survived ... How had it felt to be him?" Psychiatric help, Deo insists, is not necessary. He's found peace within himself. And what gives meaning to his life is his desire to heal people everywhere.

They travel together to Burundi in 2006 to visit Deo's birthplace and his surviving relatives. Along the way, Deo's interest in health care also leads them to check out several public hospitals, which are mostly poorly run. It is then that Deo makes a decision to build a clinic in Burundi, fully realizing that he might not have the support of PIH, which is already overextended. "I know I have these unrealistic beliefs and thoughts, that the world can be peaceful, can be healthy, people can be humane," he says. The final pages the book deal with how Deo approaches his newest challenge.

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Although the scope of the book is broad, Kidder shows mastery of his material. He offers us fine prose, complex characters, and realistic portrayals. Deo's resilience, his struggle to overcome adversity strikes a chord in all of us. His story reaffirms our hope that one person can make a difference.

In the first part of the book Kidder vividly depicts Deo's earlier years as spent in both Burundi and New York, with memory as the guide. Part two, which chronicles their travel to Burundi, however, lacks spark, as if we have already heard it. Despite this flaw, this book is one not to be missed.

Seattle resident Bharti Kirchner is the author of eight books — the latest is "Pastries: A Novel of Desserts and Discoveries."

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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