STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 12/14/2007

ARTICLE | Kidder Confronts Problem of Goodness

by Edwin Bevins '07

"What I attempted was a shameless effort to promote something I believed in, presenting every foible to make Paul Farmer palatable, to deal with this problem of goodness."

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder used to feel helpless when confronted with stories of tragedy in developing countries. Thanks to the example of Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health, things are different now. "Before I heard about Paul Farmer and Partners in Health, I turned away when I ran into stories about pandemics in places like Haiti because I thought there was no hope," he said.

Kidder, the author of Mountains Beyond Mountains, spoke at Gordon College on March 21, the culmination of the Hamilton-Wenham Public Library's On the Same Page community reading event--an event, according to the library's website, "designed to bring individuals in the Hamilton and Wenham community together by reading one memorable book at the same time." Kidder's book was the library's choice for the community reading, and it is also required reading for Gordon College freshmen.

Mountains Beyond Mountains tells the life story of Dr. Paul Farmer, whose organization provides medical care to the impoverished nation of Haiti. Farmer's vision has since spread to Russia and Peru, and is currently looking toward Africa. In the course of writing Mountains Beyond Mountains, Kidder became an enthusiastic supporter of Farmer's work. Much of Kidder's presentation focused on sharing stories of patients who had been successfully treated at Farmer's facilities. "All the care in these facilities is first rate," Kidder said. The first 20 years of Partners in Health were "an adventure in public health and medicine." It is the success stories that have impressed Kidder the most and given him hope. "There have been a number of stories about the failure of aid in these countries. What I like about Partners in Health is they prove it can be done," he said.

When writing about a subject like Paul Farmer, an author is faced with what Kidder calls the "problem of goodness." There is "a tendency for people to feel rebuked if Paul Farmer becomes real to them," Kidder said. "Look, I know this guy makes you uncomfortable; he makes me uncomfortable, too, and here's what we can do with this discomfort."

Books by Kidder:

Mountains Beyond Mountains
On the life and work of Paul Farmer--doctor, Harvard professor, infectious-disease specialist, anthropologist and the recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant.

My Detachment
A memoir of Kidder's experience as an ROTC cadet and army officer during the Vietnam War years.

The Soul of a New Machine
Kidder's prescient account of the computer revolution, written 20 years before it actually happened.

The true story of the building of a suburban home--its frustrations, crises, tensions, challenges and triumphs.


Tracy Kidder