Saturday, June 17, 2006

Mountains Beyond Mountains

I hadn't read Tracy Kidder since he wrote House, maybe twenty years ago. It was a great book, and he struck me as a writer in the John McPhee style; a thorough analyst who could make the seemingly boring and mundane endlessly fascinating. For some reason, I never bothered to see what else he wrote, and had pretty much forgotten about him as an author.

And then my mom called and said she was mailing me his latest, Mountains Beyond Mountains, and that it had been her favorite read of the year thus far: She was right. This vignette of Doctor Paul Farmer and Partners in Health is a must read.

I greatly admire, maybe even covet, this style of writing: Taking the time to hang with the subjects for long enough and through enough events to enable the author to write about them with intimacy and comfort. I suppose that if one were positing a possible downside to that concept, one would say that so doing runs the risk of not writing honestly about the subject, for fear of tainting the relationship. I read none of that in Kidder's book. Farmer is the kind of person who could easily be gushed over and nudged toward sainthood. Dokte Paul is not a saint, however, and Kidder never gushes. Farmer's closest cohorts often point out how inscrutable he can be, yet Kidder fleshes out the man behind the works and deliver a truly riveting narrative: We are handed a complete portrait of the life of a truly amazing person.

Granted, Farmer's works are nothing short of amazing as well. Through a combination of single-minded drive, astounding talent, and unwavering dedication, Farmer forges a vehicle for improving third world health and poverty that literally becomes the working model for World Health Organization policy by the book's end. It is literally a case of one man's refusal to quit becoming a worldwide crusade for the poor.

The world Mountains Beyond Mountains illuminates is far from pretty; it is a world so cruel and ugly that one hesitates to face it. As with commercials for Care or the Catholic Children's Fund, the first world generally doesn't want to see it. Yet Farmer's cheerful insistence that we all come along is riveting, and you find yourself fully involved, without a thought of turning aside. More to the point, his Partners In Health organization simply refuses to quit, or to say no to requests for help from virtually any corner of the globe. The hope and care with which these people reach out is truly heartening.

In a day and age where it is easy to believe that the tide has turned fully toward a lack of caring, and protection only for the rich and powerful, Mountains Beyond Mountains paints a tough but encouraging picture of a quiet revolution brewing in the poorest parts of the world. Opening this wonderful book is an irrestistible invitation to have faith, hope, and to do something about changing the status quo. Read it soon.

3 comments:

David C. said...

Eben,
Thanks for the article about Mountains Beyond Mountains. Dang, man, now I have to add another book to my too-long list of must reads. Being an ex-gendarme, you would probably enjoy Kidder's Hometown as well. It's a very interesting and well-written book about the people of Northampton, Mass., including a policeman. Part of the book's appeal to me was that I had spent two weeks in Northampton for my lutherie tutorial with Bill Cumpiano.

Later, Bro.

PortTack said...

Hello E.
Kidder has done other fine books since House but none caught me quite as well. Your review of Mountains beyond Mountains makes the story of a man who accomplishes something in the face of poverty and disease a compelling choice for our time. I'll read it.

One of Kidder's collegues was looking for a book to write quite a few years back. His name was Jonathan Harr and he wrote the story of the lawsuit between WR Grace and residents of Woburn MA entitled "A Civil Action." It's a Kidder style work of writing beyond journalism where Harr earned access to all sides of the story and those intimately involved. It's a tale where no one remained unscathed, least of all the man who pitched his legal career to mount the case. A powerful read about a town not far from your old home.

(I followed you here from the luthier forum-sparky)

PortTack said...

Hello E.
Kidder has done other fine books since House but none caught me quite as well. Your review of Mountains beyond Mountains makes the story of a man who accomplishes something in the face of poverty and disease a compelling choice for our time. I'll read it.

One of Kidder's collegues was looking for a book to write quite a few years back. His name was Jonathan Harr and he wrote the story of the lawsuit between WR Grace and residents of Woburn MA entitled "A Civil Action." It's a Kidder style work of writing beyond journalism where Harr earned access to all sides of the story and those intimately involved. It's a tale where no one remained unscathed, least of all the man who pitched his legal career to mount the case. A powerful read about a town not far from your old home.

(I followed you here from the luthier forum-sparky)