BOOK NOTES - Kidder, an author to believe in -- no kidding


Earlier this year I wrote about books that were purported to be true, but turned out not to be as factual as the author claimed. I think I've found a nonfiction writer I can believe in - one who will write the truth and not falsify or fabricate facts to make a good story. That author is Tracy Kidder.

I was introduced to Tracy Kidder's writing when our book club read "Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World" (2003). Kidder does an excellent job of documenting the life of Paul Farmer, a dedicated physician, who has devoted his career to curing infectious diseases and bringing modern medicine to people living in poverty. Farmer has worked in Haiti, Peru, Cuba, and Russia trying to eradicate AIDs and multidrug resistant tuberculosis (MDR TB). In 1987 Farmer and some of his friends founded Partners in Health, an organization dedicated to providing healthcare for Farmers' clinic in Cange, Haiti.

Partners in Health currently has nine sites in Haiti, including four hospitals, complete with operating rooms. PIH has about three 3,000 staff members in Haiti, almost all Haitian, and a total of about 5,000 thousand staff members worldwide. Paul Farmer now lives and works in Rwanda and PIH is deeply involved in an effort to improve the health care in that country.

Kidder's latest book, "Strength in What Remains" (2009) is the story of Deo, a young medical student from the African nation of Burundi who escaped genocide and ended up in New York City, where he lived for a time in Central Park. Through the kindness of strangers, Deo finds a job, a place to live, and goes back to college to complete his degree. Kidder recounts Deo's story of survival in the first part of the book. In the second part, Kidder verifies Deo's account by revisiting the places in both Burundi and New York City where Deo lived.

Deo was fortunate to meet Paul Farmer and become an employee of Partners in Health. With the help of Paul Farmer, PIH, and his American friends, Deo has built a clinic and public health system in a rural village of Burundi. Kidder writes, "Deo's clinic was a pile of rocks when I visited the site in the summer of 2006. By the fall of 2008, it had grown into a medical center with several new buildings, a trained professional staff, and a fully stocked pharmacy. In its first year of operation it treated 21,000 different patients." The organization that Deo founded and that sponsors and operates the clinic is called Village Health Works.

If you are a teacher or would like to know what goes on in a classroom, you should read Kidder's "Among Schoolchildren" (1989). Kidder spent an entire school year in Mrs. Zajac's fifth-grade classroom in Holyoke, Mass. As a result, he has written a revealing account of education in America. As a former teacher, I could identify with Mrs. Zajac as she dealt with her "problem students" and the challenges they present. Readers learn how teachers deal with each other, the parents, the superintendent, and the school board and gain an appreciation of how much time a good teacher spends on her students.

In "House" (1985) Kidder takes the reader through the process of building a home. Kidder has the ability to quietly follow around the clients, the architect, and the builders and relate their thoughts. The clients hire a good friend as the architect for the project. They find a good building company to put their plans into reality. The frustrations between the parties are explored by Kidder. The clients want to save money, yet want a beautiful house. The architect's plans aren't always on time or practical for the builders to execute. The builders consider themselves craftsmen and pride themselves on their work but resent having to argue with the clients over every cost. The fact that the builders are working on a schedule that fines them $100 a day if they do not complete the house on time adds interest and suspense to the story. If you are thinking about having a house built, this is a must-read.

Kidder's second book, "The Soul of a New Machine" (1981) was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award. Kidder recounts the feverish efforts of a team of Data General researchers to create a new 32-bit superminicomputer. Computers have changed since 1981, but what has not changed is the feverish pace of the high-tech industry. Kidder's book endures as the classic chronicle of the computer age and the masterminds behind its technological advances.

Other books by Kidder (all non-fiction) include: "The Road to Yuba City," (1974); "Old Friends," (1993); "Home Town," (1999); and "My Detachment," (2005).

Tracy Kidder is considered a literary journalist because of the strong story line and personal voice in his writing. He has cited as his writing influences John McPhee, A. J. Liebling, and George Orwell. Kidder wrote in a 1994 essay, "In fiction, believability may have nothing to do with reality or even plausibility. It has everything to do with those things in nonfiction. I think that the nonfiction writer's fundamental job is to make what is true believable."

Tracy Kidder was born November 12, 1945 in New York City. He attended Harvard University, originally majoring in Political Science, but switched to English after taking a course in creative writing, and received an AB degree in 1967. He served in the US Army as a first lieutenant, Military Intelligence, Vietnam, from 1967 to 1969. After returning from Vietnam he wrote for some time and then enrolled in the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He received an MFA degree from the University of Iowa in 1974. Kidder lives with his wife and family in Massachusetts and Maine.

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