Study Guide Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder

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MOUNTAINS BEYOND MOUNTAINS SUMMARY



PART I - Doktè Paul



CHAPTER 1



Summary


This chapter explains how the author came to meet Dr. Paul Edward Farmer. Two weeks before Christmas 1994, in a market town in the central plateau of Haiti called Mirebalais, the author is sitting with an American Special Forces captain named Jon Carroll at a Haitian army outpost. He is in Haiti to report on American soldiers, 20,000 of which had been sent to reinstate the country’s democratically elected government and to strip away power from the military junta that had deposed it and ruled cruelly for three years. With only eight men, Captain Carroll is temporarily in charge of approximately 150,000 Haitians spread across one thousand square miles. Political violence has all but disappeared except for one particularly grisly murder: a few weeks back, American soldiers had fished the headless corpse of the assistant mayor of the town from the river. A rural sheriff named Nerva Juste, a frightening figure to most of the people of the area, had been arrested by Captain Carroll, but was released for lack of evidence or witnesses. The release of Juste was a source of great frustration to Captain Carroll, but because the US government had determined that they would not be in the business of “nation building,” he was given no tools to properly govern the area he now controlled.

As the chapter begins, Captain Carroll is advised that he has five visitors: four Haitians with one American friend. The American steps forward to explain that his name is Paul Farmer, and he is a doctor working in a local hospital. Captain Carroll asks Farmer if he has any medical needs and that he himself has even bought medicines when needed. However, Farmer’s concern is who cut off the head of the assistant mayor. Carroll answers that he doesn’t know for sure, but Farmer says that in that small area it is very hard not to know the answer. The two men then have a somewhat circuitous conversation with Farmer expressing his concern that the American government’s plans for fixing Haiti would aid business interests but do nothing to relieve the suffering of the poor. He says he is on the side of the poor but it is still unclear which side the American soldiers are on, especially in light of Nerva Juste’s release. The author realizes that Farmer knows Haiti better than Carroll does, and he’s trying to impart the fact that the Haitians are losing confidence in the Captain. However, Carroll becomes riled at Farmer’s criticisms and raises his voice to say that when he has enough evidence he’ll slam the man, but until he does, he’s not going to stoop to the level of those who make summary arrests. Farmer argues that it makes no sense to apply principles of constitutional law to a country that has no functioning legal system. So they come to a stalemate - one is a “redneck” arguing for due process while the other is a champion of human rights arguing for preventative detention.

The author stays with the soldiers for several weeks and then meets up with Farmer again on the flight home. Kidder proceeds to have an in-depth conversation with Farmer about the murder of the assistant mayor in which the doctor explains that he had come to Captain Carroll to warn him. The Haitians in the area were upset with Carroll’s decision about Nerva Juste and had challenged the doctor to stop and talk to the soldier. Ironically, as they were passing the army compound, the got a flat tire and Farmer had commented that “you have to listen to messages from angels.”

Kidder also gets Farmer to tell him about his life. The doctor is 35 and graduated from Harvard Medical School and also has a Ph.D in anthropology. He works in Boston for four months of the year, living in a church rectory in a poor neighborhood. The rest of the year he works without pay in Haiti, doctoring peasants who had lost their land to a hydroelectric dam. He had sneaked back into Haiti when the junta was in power by paying a small bribe.

After the plane lands, Kidder speaks to Farmer again in a small coffee shop and a few weeks later, he takes him to dinner in Boston, hoping the doctor could help him make sense of what he is writing about Haiti. Kidder is very impressed with Farmer’s enthusiasm about the island nation and how he clearly enjoys living among the poor. However, after their dinner, Kidder loses touch with the doctor. In the interim, he comes to take on the same the belief as the soldier that there’s not much they can do to alleviate the extreme poverty in Haiti, which appears in what he writes about the country. It’s only when he thinks about Farmer that he comes to have a different view of the island. He knows that this view will be hard to share, because it implies a definition of a term like “doing one’s best.” In the meantime, Kidder sends monetary donations to which Farmer sends a handwritten thank-you note each time. Then, the author hears that Farmer is working in international health, notably with tuberculosis, but they don’t meet again until 1999 when Kidder calls the doctor and Farmer names the place.

 

Notes

This entire opening chapter is foreshadowing of the kind of man Kidder is going to tell the reader about - Dr. Paul Farmer, a true humanitarian. His willing to do his best among the poor and downtrodden everywhere is about to unfold to the reader.

 

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