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Tracy Kidder’s Novel “Strength in What Remains” Essay

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Updated: May 15th, 2020

The modern world is full of drastic and often shocking contrasts. Poverty exists along with the excessive wealth, problems of the first and third world societies focus on very different issues, peaceful and safe environments may be located across the border from the ones torn apart by conflicts, distress and crises. In his novel titled Strength in What Remains Tracy Kidder provides an excellent demonstration of the unbelievable differences between the societies located in different parts of the world. Kidder’s protagonist Deo is the one through whose eyes the readers get to observe the contrasting environments that are compared to different planets.

The author brings up a theme of a civil war refugee who has fled to the United States from Africa and who struggles trying to match his old experiences to the new ones and to get used to the new life that is so much different from and sometimes even opposite to everything he knew. Tracy Kidder’s non-fiction narrative about pre- and post-immigration experiences of Deo, a civil war refugee from Burundi, restores my faith in humanity in terms of three different aspects – the faith in an individual, the faith in a society, and the faith into a reader of this story.

The Faith in an Individual

The main protagonist of Strength in What Remains, Deo can be described as a hero of our time. His story is a detailed demonstration of what kind of cultural and emotional shock immigrants and war refugees who relocate to the first world countries experience. An immigrant is not a rare kind of person in the United States that was founded by the immigrants from Europe and then empowered and developed by the immigrants from all around the world.

Yet, seeing such newcomer not many people actually wonder about their personal story, what forced them to move, what they left behind and what kind of life they faced after the relocation. Deo’s life before the immigration was filled with horrors and sufferings, he witnessed a bloody and violent civil war that took his family from him. One may say that a young man fleeing his motherland in the middle of civil war is a coward, that he must stay and protect it. Yet, Deo chooses to protect his right granted by article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that says “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” (par. 12).

The memories from the past are ever-present in his mind. When he first arrives to the USA he notices how different the people there are, that no one is scared or worried, that everyone is just doing their business or spends time with their families “as if they didn’t know there were places where dogs were trotting around with human heads in their mouths” (Kidder 11).

Deo notices other features he cannot explain. For example, he cannot comprehend why poor people can be overweight and rich ones are skinny, and why do the Westerners cling to their bad memories while the Burundians try to forget and move on. As a Burundian, Deo desperately tries to forget the sufferings of the past and forgive the perpetuators of his pain. Unfortunately, it is true that Western people hold on to their past letting it dictate their present and future. This is why the courage and emotional strength of Deo are particularly admirable for me.

The main protagonist travels two journeys at the same time, he moves physically from one country to another and he takes another challenging path moving from grief and anger towards forgiveness and peace. In my opinion, both of these actions require incredible will-power and courage which Deo finds within himself eventually demonstrating the true strength of an individual, his emotional maturity, wisdom and transcendent power.

The Faith in a Society

The story of Deo is description of two very different societies – the one Deo encountered in the United States and the one he left behind in Burundi. While the American society of 1994 struggles with delayed plane flights or lack of interesting cable programs, the people of Burundi and Rwanda suffer from civil war and the horrors it carries.

Interestingly enough, the attitudes towards trouble are very different for the two of these societies. While the Burundians exhausted by years of pain try to thrive through it, the western society has a much lower “pain threshold”, besides, it prefers to remember the sufferings instead of moving on from them, and forgiveness is a rare phenomenon is general. In his motherland, according to Deo’s memories, the elders say: “When too much is too much or too bad is too bad, we laugh as if it was too good” (Kidder 36).

It seems that one of the sources of the strength of the Burundian society was its deprivation of a large number of goods common in the United States. Kidder mentions that “If you didn’t know what electricity was, you didn’t feel its absence” (36). Perhaps, the Westerners are so spoiled by all kinds of goods that they became too soft and too sensitive towards the withdrawal of the comfort they are used to have. Paradoxically, the Western society seems more pessimistic than the African one.

Moreover, in Strength in What Remains, Kidder depicts the Burundians in the context of various sufferings and deprivation showing their will to survive, preserve their families, and protect their children. This is demonstrated by the tradition to call the babies bad names in order to confuse death and save their lives. The Burundian society is a demonstration that there is always a way to survive, and that regardless of how hard life is, it is still worth fighting for.

Burundians, as a society and as a culture have organized their way of life to address the problems they are likely to face and developed ways around them. Most importantly, they have developed a mentality of fighters and hard workers grasping opportunities and never giving up. This mentality is what helps Deo cope with the difficulties life throws at him in New York.

The Faith into a Reader

In my opinion, an individual who picks up Strength in What Remains and starts to read it automatically makes themselves a part of this story. Anyone who has ever been through immigration, a military armed conflict in their motherland or poverty could identify with the character of Deo. The others automatically take over the role of observers and learners allowed a peak at the inner world of the initial stages of immigration and all the struggles a newcomer without any contacts or any English language command faces arriving to a new country.

Following Deo’s thoughts the reader gets to perceive the two different planets the main protagonists see. Through Deo’s perspective a Western reader starts to notice all the fascinating and shocking details that only an immigrant from a different culture could notice about America. For the reader, Deo serves as an opening door to the new world which normally remains unnoticed – the dimension of impoverished individuals, immigrants struggling to make their living in a new country, in-city residents deprived of opportunities, homeless people camping in parks.

There is a story behind each of these individuals and I believe that Strength in What Remains makes the readers wonder about these stories, notice these people. Looking at all of the representatives of low-income immigrants in search for opportunities raises a question – how much of unspent human potential is there oppressed by the lack of help and guidance? (ExpandedBooks). My faith into the readers of Strength in What Remains is based on their open-mindedness and desire to learn about stories like Deo’s, and maybe someday provide help to someone like Deo.


In conclusion, calling the United States a land of opportunities is very common, but Deo is an example of a paradox that happens to most of immigrants like him – relocating they leave behind the societies where they had a niche, contacts, accommodations, and habitual lifestyle, and put themselves at the very bottom of the new society.

The main protagonist, his original culture and the society where he comes from are penetrated with pain and sufferings, but their will to fight for their lives is truly admirable. The reader choosing this story over the others also restores my faith in humanity showing people’s desire to learn about the world they are unfamiliar with. Finally, the author brings up a crucial topic of the ability to forgive the worst and most awful pain and move on, I believe that this ability is something the modern Western society could view as a source of multiple virtues.

Cover Letter

In my opinion, the main weakness of this essay is the lack of complexity in its structure. I divided the body of this work into three parts representing three main aspects of my thesis statement. Perhaps, the essay is oversimplified, but my intention was to make it clearly address the claims made in the thesis statement and present them in a well-organized manner because the structure of an essay has been recognized as a weakness of my previous work.

Besides, I believe that I could have divide each of the three parts into paragraphs. Instead each of the parts is built as a single long paragraph with a claim in the beginning, a quote supporting it, and a following discussion. An aspect that I believe can be characterized as both a strength and a weakness is the lack of perspective, because I believe my insufficient knowledge of the history of the civil war Deo escaped from and the culture of the Burundian society makes me a weaker reader and, as a result, my analysis might lack depth.

As for the strengths of this essay, I addressed the comments concerning my previous work and made thesis statement and conclusion clearer and more consistent. Besides, speaking about the themes discussed in the story I added the reader as a part of the book intending to make my approach multidimensional and interactive.

This decision was also a reaction to the previous comments I received about treating the work as a social study instead of adding a persuasive element. Finally, the essay provides a philosophical discussion of the themes raised in Strength in What Remains and associates them with the issues common in the modern world. The language is of essay is clear, yet academic and allows the reader to comprehend the point of the writing.

Works Cited

ExpandedBooks. . 2009.

Kidder, Tracy. Strength in What Remains. New York, New York: Random House, 2010. Print.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. UN. 2009.

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