This year, as part of the University of Rhode Island’s colloquium, all the incoming freshman students were asked to read “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” Pultizer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder’s evocative story of Dr. Paul Farmer and his efforts to deliver health care to Haiti’s very poorest citizens.
In the last decade, more than 100 universities and colleges have chosen “Mountains Beyond Mountains” as required reading for students, clearly a story that has resonance about life choices made by a young doctor turned health advocate.
Providence Business News caught up with Kidder on his way to deliver a lecture at URI on Sept. 11.
PBN: The entire freshman class at URI is being asked to read “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” What do you think that students will learn – and learned about themselves – from reading your story?
KIDDER: That’s a tough question. I guess I really hope that they are moved by it, that they find it interesting and compelling to read. In terms of what they may learn about themselves, I have never given it much thought. The aim of almost good writing and narratives is to take you out of your own little world. I don’t want to get preachy; I’m a writer, not a proselytizer.
This is a story about an extraordinary human being. It’s an interesting example of what small groups can do. [From reading the book,] I think you can find in yourself sympathy, and from that, make it possible to imagine yourself in the shoes of someone like Farmer, and of the people who he is trying to help.
Really good story telling can do that, to enable you to put yourself imaginatively in the lives of people.
PBN: We are in the midst of a very partisan presidential election campaign, with health care a big issue. Why do you think the future of health care has become such a divisive force politically?
KIDDER: It puzzles me. I believe very strongly that health care – and public health – is a human right, something we all deserve. We need it. It’s something so primary, so basic. Why would we want to see great swathes of our population in the richest country in the world to [be forced to go] without health care?
We spend more than any other country on medical care per capita, but we don’t get the best results. It’s high time we started asking why.
It’s a little bizarre when I hear someone say: “I don’t want the government messing with my Medicare.” Medicare is the largest single publicly financed health insurance program in the world. It’s a little preposterous to hear [someone say] that private enterprise is the answer, and that private enterprise will deliver a more efficient, better product. It’s clearly not true.
PBN: What do you think makes “Mountains Beyond Mountains” so resonant with college campuses nine years after it was first published in 2003?
KIDDER: Story telling is crucial. Stores can get you to the place that other kinds of writing can’t. One of the things that stories can do is to enable us to imagine other lives. If it’s done well enough, it can enable the reader to develop a capacity for sympathetic and compassionate imagination.
My book is about someone trying to improve the world, it’s not about me, me, me. I have talked about this book at quite a few college campuses – about 100. There is a significant minority of young Americans interested in this. They find themselves dissatisfied with [just obtaining] trinkets, with only to make themselves and the people around them more comfortable.
In terms of why “Mountains Beyond Mountains” is still resonant, I wish I knew. But I don’t. Every school does it a little bit differently. I suppose faculty and administrators want something that everyone can read in common and has values. They don’t want a book that is simply a yarn or one that will bore the students. My book offers a nice combination, I’m just guessing.
PBN: How has your own life changed as a result of “Mountain Beyond Mountains”?
KIDDER: I haven’t given up all my worldly positions and gone to work in Haiti. One of the things about my job as a storyteller is that no matter what, you’re bound to learn something. The book served as a lens to see misery, health and medicine in a powerful way, in a really poor country or in a poor part of a rich country.
I hope I’m less hypocritical and more generous.
The book hasn’t made a tremendous change in my life. I’m still a storyteller. I didn’t set out to do a good deed. I told what I thought was a really good story.
PBN: Did your story telling influence your family? You have a daughter who is now an emergency room physician. Did they ever get tired of hearing your stories?
KIDDER: I think my daughter had a natural proclivity towards medicine. I think she was born with an altruistic gene. I remember a time when she was a student at Brown [University], she went to South Africa to do a report on an asbestos-mining town, and I remember her saying to me: “I don’t want to just write reports that gather dust on shelves …”
And, yes, my kids often told me that they had heard that story before. They’re all grown up, and getting a little more tolerant, I suppose.