Joel's Reviews > Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness

Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder
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's review
Jan 12, 2010

really liked it
Read in December, 2009 — I own a copy

Strength in What Remains tells the true story of a young man named Deo, who flees from his home country and tries to re-establish his life as a refugee in New York City. Burundi, a tiny African nation bordering Rwanda, was engulfed in violence in the 1990s when a Hutu politician was murdered by members of the Tutsi-controlled military, setting off a chain reaction of mob violence and brutal military crackdowns that eventually spilled over into Rwanda.

Deo was a medical student in Burundi's only medical school when the violence broke out. He traveled for weeks on foot with nothing to eat, while militias armed with machetes and hand-grenades massacred entire villages. When he finally escaped the country - with the help of a well-connected friend of Belgian descent - he found himself struggling to start a new life in which he was no longer a promising medical student, but instead, a homeless refugee who spoke no English and couldn't sleep for fear of the terrible dreams about what he had seen in Burundi and Rwanda.

Long story short: things turn out all right for Deo. He ends up getting an education and returning to Burundi to try to make the war-torn nation a better place. Hurray!

I thought that the portions of the book that took place in New York City were substantially better than the portions that took place in Burundi. I can't put my finger on exactly why this is the case, but the portions that occur in Burundi - the portions that are supposed to be the most riveting and the most disturbing, don't really come across that way. While the causes of the genocide are interesting, the question that most interested me was: how can a person continue to live a normal life after witnessing such atrocities? Whether it's the tribal massacres in Burundi and Rwanda, the mass executions in Cambodia or in the Soviet Union, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, or the gas chambers of Bergen-Belsen - how can a person witness these things and feel anything but bitterness and rage? How could anyone live through these things and still believe that human beings are good and worth trusting? These are the questions that arise after Deo has escaped the genocide, as he tries to adjust to a new culture, a new language, and a new life in which he must accommodate the memory of the things he has seen.

Deo's story turns out far better than those of most of his compatriots. Nevertheless, it isn't exactly a happy ending; the fact that he managed to salvage a life from the wreckage of the genocide is tempered by the fact that the genocide occurred at all. Strength in What Remains is equally the inspirational story of man who overcomes tremendous odds and the tragic story of what could have been - for Deo and for Burundi - if the violence had never occurred.
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