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Mountains Beyond Mountains: A Compelling Read

by Greta Petry (March 7, 2006)

Tracy Kidder
Tracy Kidder

When I first learned the entire University at Albany campus was "assigned" to read Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains, I was a bit resentful. After all, I'm 50 years old, a professional in the Office of Media and Marketing, and I'm getting homework, like I'm in high school?

I don't like to be told what to read. Left to my own devices last year, for example, I read Thomas Hardy's The Woodlanders, Dan Brown's Angels and Demons, Joan Morgan's When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, and Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

The interesting thing about books though, is how one book can lead you to another. In February, at the recommendation of undergraduate Yolenny Vargas, I picked up Julia Alvarez's In the Time of the Butterflies. On my own, I would never have read a history of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. Yet I could not put down Alvarez's fictionalized account of the lives of the Mirabal sisters under the Trujillo regime.

Once I finished Butterflies, it was time to move on to Mountains Beyond Mountains. Within the first 20 pages, my initial resistance faded. For one thing, the subject of the book was Paul Farmer, M.D., a physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, where my husband Ken successfully received a donated heart valve in 2001. My impression of Brigham and Women's mirrored Kidder's: a gleaming atrium, fine care, and the best doctors available. I remember a surreal meeting with Ken's heart surgeon. I looked up at a picture on the wall of the physician with Larry King. Another photo showed him with the pope. I remember thinking, "OK, I don't know you, but maybe I'll trust you with my husband's life." What I didn't think twice about at the time was that here in the United States, we have the opportunity to seek out (if insurance will allow it) the best surgeons and the best health care for our loved ones.

Kidder takes the reader from Brigham and Women's to Haiti, where Farmer brought his Harvard Medical School training to provide health care to people living under the most crushing poverty imaginable.

What grabbed me about the book immediately was that Farmer is not depicted in a glossed-over way. No candidate for sainthood, he is prickly, stubborn, easy to anger, and blunt, not to mention married but never home. Yet he managed to provide public health care at Zanmi Lasante in Cange, Haiti, of a high quality to people who are oppressed beyond belief.

Kidder writes, "My local hospital in Massachusetts was treating about 175,000 patients a year and had an annual operating budget of $60 million. In 1999 Zanmi Lasante had treated roughly the same number of people, at the medical complex and out in the communities, and had spent about $1.5 million, half of that in the form of donated drugs." The New York State Writers Institute is bringing Kidder to UAlbany March 23.

I was mesmerized by two things: Farmer's own childhood growing up as one of six children in a large bus without running water or electricity, which inadvertently prepared him to sleep on the floor anywhere in the world; and, his insistence that his patients in Haiti, and later Peru and Russia, be treated as well as any middle-class patient in America would be cared for at the Brigham.

He refuses to let the middle-class and wealthy off the hook, showing over and over again how one move by the wealthy directly causes the abject misery of the poor. For example, early in the book he notes that when a dam was built on the Artibonite River to assist agribusinesses downstream and provide electricity to a small, wealthy elite in Port-au-Prince, the result was flooded peasant farmlands upstream. The peasants received neither electricity nor irrigated water, and most received no money for their land. Those who had supported their families for generations in Cange suddenly were left with submerged land. They moved to higher ground and settled in the hills, where the land was not arable.

"Things got worse," writes Kidder. "Even after the dam, most peasants still had their black, low-slung Creole pigs, which they kept like bank accounts, to pay for things such as school tuition. But in the early 1980s, they lost those as well. Alarmed about an outbreak of African swine fever in the Dominican Republic, afraid that it might threaten the American pork industry, the United States led an effort to destroy all the Creole pigs in Haiti."

The pigs were replaced with American pigs from Iowa that did not thrive. The peasants' bank accounts were wiped out, and school enrollments dropped.

I believe Provost Susan Herbst's choice of this book is an excellent one for the University community. For one thing, it gives us a push to get out of our own comfort zone, forces us to think about class and race disparities, and holds us accountable for not doing enough for the poor around the world.

It puts into perspective the trivial differences that can sometimes flourish in a university setting, and this includes looking out for ourselves when we ought to be looking out for the good of all. In short, if you haven't already read Mountains Beyond Mountains, I highly recommend it. It kept me awake at night. And maybe that's the whole point.


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