Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder

The long waiting list for Mountains Beyond Mountains required us to wait some time before it became available at the library. But through the first few chapters, we were hard-pressed to identify the reason for the popularity of this biographical account of doctor Paul Farmer (b. 1959). Farmer struck us as arrogant and narcissistic, and we found the voice of Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Kidder flat and journalistic.

But we pressed on, suspecting there was more to Farmer and to Kidder’s bestseller, and we were right. In fact, part of the book’s appeal turned out to be Kidder’s approach to representing the globe-trotting doctor. We first receive a superficial impression, as one would upon encountering a person for the first time. Forty-five pages in, Kidder backs up and begins to provide some biographical background and a more complex character sketch—the sort of information one might gather after more substantial encounters.

Farmer’s life’s work began with trips to Haiti as an anthropology student. His interest in the people there grew, and eventually he established a hospital where the impoverished in that region could receive treatment practically free. He also initiated a system of community health work and founded Partners In Health, an organization that would eventually expand and undertake projects in countries such as Peru and Russia. One of Farmer’s principal concerns became treatment of AIDS and tuberculosis patients. At the end of Mountains Beyond Mountains appears a bibliography including nearly five pages of books and articles by Farmer with titles such as “Social scientists and the new tuberculosis,” “Medicine and social justice,” and “The exotic and the mundane: Human immunodeficiency virus in Haiti.”

Kidder does not focus excessively on his own experiences or reactions to Farmer; at the same time, his personal insights and revelations contribute to the success of the biography. In a section titled “A Light Month for Travel,” he relates two conversations with Farmer in which Kidder felt reproved—unjustly, he seems to indicate. And we can’t help thinking, as readers, that we would have reacted in the same way. But we also gather from these exchanges that Farmer and Kidder forged a friendship. From such intimate glimpses, we gain a nuanced picture of the “real” Farmer—not merely the uncritical perspective of a friend, but not the superficial description of an outsider, either.


We were challenged by Farmer’s unforgiving views on moral responsibility and his relentless activity on behalf of the poor to consider further our attitudes and actions toward the impoverished. B says he was especially impacted by Farmer’s insistence that the wealthy (meaning those living at or above the level of most US citizens) have a moral obligation to help the poor, even though most of them are out of our sight (and thus out of mind) most of the time. A conversation regarding rural Haiti between Kidder and Farmer illustrates Farmer’s perspective:

(Kidder): “It seems like another world.”
Farmer looked up, smiling, and in a chirpy-sounding voice, he said, “But that feeling has the disadvantage of being …” he paused a beat. “Wrong.”
“Well,” I retorted, “it depends on how you look at it.”
“No, it doesn’t,” he replied, in a very pleasant voice. “The polite thing to say would be, ‘You’re right. It’s a parallel universe. There really is no relation between the massive accumulation of wealth in one part of the world and abject misery in another’” (218).

Clearly Farmer is not interested in saying the polite thing. Elsewhere he cites Jesus’ parable in Matthew chapter 25, verses 34 through 40, in which a king tells his subjects, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (v. 40). Then Farmer paraphrases verses 45 and 46: “Inasmuch as you did it not, you’re screwed” (p. 185).

I’m reminded of a recent conversation with a fellow graduate school classmate who commented on the nature of American values: Every time we watch a movie the FBI copyright warning reminds us of our moral obligation to Paramount Pictures to respect their right to make money, but no one reminds us of our moral obligation to the poor.

We have some philosophical concerns about Farmer’s approach to aid–concerns also voiced by others whom Kidder quotes in the book. Principally, the question arises as to whether what he has done is sustainable and reproducible and whether the result is empowerment, rather than dependency. But doing something, even if it is sometimes misdirected, is certainly better than “philosophically” doing nothing.

Kidder clearly spent a great deal of time researching, traveling with Farmer, and interviewing his family, friends and colleagues. He has written an insightful description of a complex man on a compelling mission.

BookBrowse interview with Tracy Kidder about Mountains Beyond Mountains: BookBrowse and Tracy Kidder

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