Sunday, April 7, 2013

Review: Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder

Tags: nonfiction, biography, global health


This powerful and inspiring new book shows how one person can make a difference, as Kidder tells the true story of a gifted man who is in love with the world and has set out to do all he can to cure it.

At the center of Mountains Beyond Mountains stands Paul Farmer. Doctor, Harvard professor, renowned infectious-disease specialist, anthropologist, the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, world-class Robin Hood, Farmer was brought up in a bus and on a boat, and in medical school found his life’s calling: to diagnose and cure infectious diseases and to bring the lifesaving tools of modern medicine to those who need them most. This magnificent book shows how radical change can be fostered in situations that seem insurmountable, and it also shows how a meaningful life can be created, as Farmer—brilliant, charismatic, charming, both a leader in international health and a doctor who finds time to make house calls in Boston and the mountains of Haiti—blasts through convention to get results. [summary from Goodreads]


You’re not supposed to love this book. To do so would be to fall to the seduction of blind idolatry, and Farmer, the book’s subject, even points out that this is not his goal: the goal isn’t to convince more people to BE like Farmer, but rather to think like him, to believe in what he believes. As a fiction reader/writer who only sporadically dabbles in nonfiction, I find it hard to consolidate the opinions of the two types of readers in me: the one who reads to learn the craft of writing, and the one who wants to be moved by new, eye-opening reading experiences.

Research aside, Kidder’s writing style and his way of creating “characters” is simplistic. He basically throws a million details, PIH-er vocabulary, Farmer quotes, and anecdotes at you and essentially commands you to be convincingly immersed in their world. And, if you don’t actually feel immersed, because the words and details on the page are basically deliberately arrhythmic, Kidder and Farmer will give you the steady “are-you-stupid” stare—you don’t get it, do you, because you’re not smart enough to get it, you will never be able to truly understand and get the inner workings of Farmer’s mind and soul.

Actually, Kidder addresses this in his book. I think it’s partly the reason for why he actually writes himself as a character into his book: because Paul Farmer is so easy to deify, with his nerdily bemused made-up vocabulary and quips, his grand visions, his inexplicable endless resource of energy, that we mere mortal readers need someone in the book with whom we can connect and empathize. Kidder is not especially likable in the book: he essentially takes on the role of Devil’s advocate and asks Farmer all the questions that we readers are thinking but would never dare admit that we’re thinking: Can you really do what you envision? How can you exist without a solid flow of monetary support? Is it really worthwhile for you to use your time and money to help someone with just a 5% chance of living past age thirty? Kidder places himself as the dumb normal man because that’s how we’re all feeling in the shadow of Farmer. And this leads to one of the ongoing emotional contradictions we have regarding this book: Farmer makes us feel guilty for not ourselves being a part of his cause, and then we feel angry that Farmer is making ourselves feel guilty by example, etc.

The debate over the best way to portray Farmer and his work aside (is a print book, with all its limitations and the conscious/subconscious selectivity of language, the best medium through which to convey Farmer’s beliefs and dreams?), the book’s message is one that grows on you, to ultimately become something you go back to, again and again. It doesn’t smack you over the head with itself: for most of the book, I was still struggling between what it is that Farmer and Kidder were trying to make me feel, and to believe in the feasibility of Farmer’s vision, not only as a reader believes in a book’s world but as a frustrated individual believes in the vision’s place in our real world.

 There are many different things that many different readers can take away from MOUNTAINS BEYOND MOUNTAINS. You could feel ridicule masking insecurity over Farmer’s and PIH’s actions. You could take the book as an inspirational call to arms—and then be stranded because you don’t know how to make the best use of your arms. You can say, that’s nice, this is a nice biography about a nice, good man, and then move on to the next book in your TBR pile. (The book—Farmer and Kidder—also preempts any seemingly original emotional and intellectual responses to itself because it works all these different possible responses into its narrative. The self-awareness of this book is super annoying at times!)

What I took away from this book, however, is this: the world is a sucky place, and most of the suckiness is the result of our—humans’—interferences with the natural state of things, by imposing structures and systems on everything and creating disparities. As Farmer says, suffering is a human creation, and then we devise ways to ease that suffering, but only for the people who contributed to the creation of that suffering in the first place. And it’s really easy for us individuals to feel frustrated and helpless in the face of such systems that claim, but fail, to benefit humanity (see: the big mess that is the United States congressional system).

 But rather than wrap ourselves in that helplessness and frustration, we should believe, first and foremost, in the power of the individual to help others, and then in the power of a collective of like-minded individuals to enact even greater changes, essentially beating the system and establishing their own system that is based upon actual observation and experience at the individual level. This is why Farmer continues to trek seven hours into the central plateau of Haiti in order to call on just one patient: without that focus on the individual, PIH’s system will become like every other system in history and the world that has failed in its missives, tangled up in bureaucracy and financial economy and the like. 

Focusing on the individual is doable, and essential, and I can do it, and you can do it, and everyone can do it, and this dream that the world can be an inexplicably better place, however opaque the path there is.

Random House / Aug. 31, 2004 / Paperback (reprint) / 322pp. / $16.00

Personal copy.


  1. I can't remember when was the last time I have read some biography. I'm really not into them so I'll skip this one either way. But this sounds like an interesting read :)

  2. MBM was very moving and it was wonderful how this book built support for Farmer's fabulous work, but I wish Kidder hadn't put himself in the narrative. His constant whining about being thirsty or tired were annoying and felt trivial compared to the suffering of others. I understand why he did it, but I felt it was unnecessary. Stylistically, I preferred Kidder's other books: House, Hometown, School Children, the Soul of the New Machine, in which he tells the story like a novel without inserting his presence. Even though I usually prefer fiction to nonfiction, Kidder is one of my favorite authors. Years ago when this book first came out, I met him briefly and heard him speak at Bowdoin College, and he's an eloquent and inspiring speaker too.

    1. I know what you mean. Kidder's presence in the story was more than a little irritating as he kept on expressing his doubts and concerns and pedestrian concerns. Even as I think I get why he did that, it still annoyed me, though it didn't detract from the meaning of the book for me. I hadn't considered checking out his other books, but if you recommend them, I think I should give them some second thought!

  3. This isn't at all my usual sort of read (it probably could have been at one point, but not any more), though you have me strangely curious about it now. I have never thought of suffering as a human creation, but I suppose there is a lot of truth in Farmer's way of thinking... I doubt I'll pick this up any time soon, but thanks for drawing it to attention! Great review as always!


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