Book Review: Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder

When I was in Panama six weeks ago, I found myself in a bad place. I was depressed and isolated. There was no reason for this feeling really — my way was being paid by a blogging partnership, and I was practicing my Spanish. I was caught up in my own head, feeling depressed in a situation where I knew I needn’t.

As I was walking around one of the poorer districts of Bocas Del Toro, feeling sorry for myself, I had a stark realization: I felt no drive to help these people.

Bocas is a place of contrasts: hovels and broken roads alongside million-dollar homes for wealthy expats. Privilege alongside poverty. And no matter how poorly I was feeling, I knew I fell firmly on the privileged side of that divide.

I thought of my sister, Christina, who has dedicated her life to helping the less fortunate. Once you have seen true inequality with your own eyes, “I don’t see how you could want to do anything else,” but try and alleviate it, she had once told me.

Here I was, in the middle of such inequality, and it couldn’t touch me.

Which brings us to “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” by Tracy Kidder. Christina handed it to me recently, with the instructions: “You should really read it. If only to understand your dear sister a little better.”

“Mountains Beyond Mountains” tells the story of Dr. Paul Farmer, an impossibly idealistic American doctor who is, to cannibalize the book’s subtitle, “a man who would cure the world.”

Farmer is a figure almost too saintly to be real. He rises from a poorer background to become a doctor, an anthropologist, and the architect of many international public health programs. The book follows Farmer from Boston to Peru, to the prisons of Russia — but before any of that, Farmer is a champion of Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s most desperate nation. He establishes clinics, treats patients himself, learns the language and dedicates his life to improving things, just a little bit, in the impoverished Central Plateau of Haiti. He works, at least the way Kidder depicts him, like a man possessed.

He donates his salary. He marries a Haitian. He learns Creole and Spanish. He develops innovative and holistic treatment regimens on the tiniest of budgets. He earns a MacArthur Genius grant. And somehow, along the way, he finds time to still see his poor patients, personally, almost every day.

Most of us, I theorize, know a person like this. A person who is always volunteering, always donating, researching, and sharing their new cause — the person who makes you feel guilty, in whatever small way, that you are living the life you are. But you don’t feel guilty because this person tells you should: you feel guilty because you just don’t have their drive to ‘cure the world.’ Their selflessness makes you feel selfish.

Or maybe that’s just me.

We would all like to have an absolute moral compass

Kidder writes:

“Of all the world’s errors, he seemed to feel, the most fundamental was the ‘erasing’ of people, the ‘hiding away’ of suffering. Farmer says: ‘My big struggle is how people can not care, erase, not remember’.”

A bit later in the book, a Russian cohort of Farmer’s says: “Sentimentality fuels him.”

This, for me, rings true to the core of the book.

How can a person be so sentimental towards the whole human race?

A person like Paul Farmer carries an almost limitless reservoir of compassion inside him. You can tell he tries, very very hard, to put no human above any other. At one point described in the book, he carries two photos in his wallet: a photo of his 2-year-old daughter, and a photo of a sick Haitian child he treated.

But to describe things that way is wrong, it seems. They are both his daughters.

It does one well to observe a figure like Paul Farmer, from time to time.

A literal genius, he recognizes that he cannot solve every problem he faces. He understands the large societal factors and epidemiological forces that make AIDS and Tuberculosis such crushing oppressors in the poorer quarters of the world. And he knows, on some level, that spending his valuable time hiking seven hours into the Haitian countryside to see two patients isn’t maximizing his potential for change.

But Farmer does it anyways. With an absolute conviction,

The man has a clarity in his soul.

The rest of us, stumbling, confused and lost, cannot share in his conviction. We just can’t. And we have to know that’s ok.

As one of Farmer’s partners in crime says in the book:

“If Paul is the model, then we’re fucked.”

He adds:

“Paul is a model of what should be done. He’s not a model for how it should be done. Let’s celebrate him. Let’s make sure people are inspired by him. But we can’t say anybody should or could be just like him. Because if the poor have to wait for a lot of people like Paul to come along before they get good health care, then they are totally fucked.”

A man like Paul Farmer doesn’t come along every day. We don’t have to feel like he is a yardstick against which we are being measured. But we can do our very least, learn about him, and think a little bit about the struggles of life outside the constrictions of our privilege.


If you’re interested in learning more about Paul Farmer, check out his Wikipedia page.

Christina recommends Farmer’s book “Pathologies of Power” if you want more of a primary source.

Or, you can buy “Mountains Beyond Mountains” on Amazon. It’s a good read.

(this post contains affiliate links. Affiliate links help support this blog).

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