Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder

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Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World

Five words from the blurb: doctor, Haiti, difference, global, disease

Mountains Beyond Mountains is a book that demands discussion. It is a perfect book club choice, especially for those looking to branch into non-fiction for the first time. The book is a biography of Paul Farmer, an American doctor who has done an incredible amount to reduce rates of infection, particularly tuberculosis, around the world. The only problem is that Paul Farmer is a controversial man and this book forces us to question our concept of right and wrong. 

As a teenager Farmer fell in love with the people of Haiti. After qualifying as a doctor he set up a clinic there and dedicated his life to improving the health of local people. The only problem is that he stole thousands of dollars of medicine and equipment from US hospitals in order to do so. Much of his illegal behaviour is glossed over and this book concentrates on the immense body of good work he has done. Many reviews have criticised Kidder for “hero worshiping” Farmer, but I think this element only adds to its discussability.

Mountains Beyond Mountains is an engaging account of Farmer’s life. The sections in which Kidder recounts the time he spent with him were particularly vivid and his admiration for Farmer’s work shines through.

And I can imagine Farmer saying he doesn’t care if no one else is willing to follow his example. He’s still going to make these hikes, he’d insist, because if you say that seven hours is too long to walk for two families of patients, you’re saying that their lives matter less than some others’, and the idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world.”

Haiti was also beautifully described. The poverty of the people was often distressing to read, but the Haitians were treated with respect throughout. I admired the way individuals were highlighted – allowing their terrible problems to be humanised, instead of just being a statistic. The political situation was also explained well and I discovered that this country has one of the most interesting pasts I’ve come across. It has made me keen to seek out more books based in this Caribbean country. 

The second half of the book, in which Farmer becomes a global authority on infection, was less interesting to me. The book became more about statistics and, although what he achieved was impressive, it didn’t have the emotional impact of the first half. 

Overall this was an important book. It raised many questions about global healthcare and left me feeling strangely guilty about my privileged place in the world.

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12 Comments

  1. Amy Brandon says:

    I’ve had this on my shelf to read for years! Time to get to it!

    1. Jackie says:

      Amy, I hope you enjoy it!

  2. Jeanne says:

    I had no idea Farmer was so controversial. I do know that Tracy is a male writer, though. It’s one of those names that can go either way.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jeanne, Thanks for pointing out my mistake! Here in the UK Tracy isn’t a unisex name so I didn’t even think to check. Will adjust my review!

  3. Hi Jackie,

    I came over from Barbara’s blog. I haven’t heard of Mountains Beyond Mountains, but it sounds like an intense read I’d want to check out, mainly because of the quote you’d shared.

    1. Jackie says:

      Claudine, Thanks for commenting on my blog for the first time! I’m glad my review interested you and I hope you enjoy the book, if you decide to give it a try.
      *heads off to look at your blog*

  4. His book Among Schoolchildren came out back when I started teaching. It’s one of the few that really gets the experience of teaching right. He spent a year with a single teacher and her students as research for the book.

    1. Jackie says:

      James, I haven’t looked into any of his other books, but an endorsement from you puts it straight on my wishlist! I look forward to reading it.

  5. This is one of my favorite Tracy Kidder books. He’s such a great writer, writing about a really great, interesting person. I agree, the first part is a little more engaging, but overall it’s one I frequently recommend.

    1. Jackie says:

      Kim, Yes, I think I’ll find myself recommending it a lot. It isn’t perfect, but there is so much going on in this book that makes it so interesting. Glad you enjoyed it too!

  6. Amy C says:

    I read Mountains Beyond Mountains several years ago and really loved it. It was so humbling (in terms of considering our American privilege), but also really inspiring!

    1. Jackie says:

      Amy, So glad you enjoyed it too!

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