U.S. anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." Tracy Kidder's book Mountains Beyond Mountains, a profile of Dr. Paul Farmer, shows just how right she was.
Farmer is both inspiring and frustrating as a character and central focus of this story. He works harder than any one person should be able to work, and does so without any regard for himself or the people closest to him. Yet as Farmer himself explained, ''The problem is, if I don't work this hard, someone will die who doesn't have to... That sounds megalomaniacal. I wouldn't have said that to you before I'd taken you to Haiti and you had seen that it was manifestly true.''
Although Kidder clearly respects what Farmer does, he carefully balances the book between admiration and critique. His profile is complimentary, but it's not overly sentimental and nor does it ignore Farmer's many weaknesses.
Kidder plays an active role in the book, writing in the first person as narrator and observer of Farmer. He provides a window through which we can see Farmer as he really is. In one especially effective section, Kidder spends a month traveling everywhere Farmer goes -- Haiti, Cuba, Paris, Moscow -- a month that Farmer describes as "a light month of travel". What Kidder achieves from this intense and in-depth reporting is a picture of the person behind the myth.
At times, the book can get a bit broad -- with so much invested across the globe, it's hard to show everything Farmer has impacted without getting too far away from him. There are a number of chapters on changes to the World Health Organization and the quest to lower the cost of drugs to treat forms of tuberculosis. These sections are interesting, but don't have the same emotional impact as the stories of Farmer working directly with patients in Haiti.
That said, Mountains Beyond Mountains is a book that needs to be read. The story is vitally important, especially given the recent catastrophic earthquake in Haiti. Understanding the major changes a small group can make without much money but a lot of dedication is inspiring, and may change the way you think about your own impact on the world.
New York Times -- "Mountains Beyond Mountains is inspiring, disturbing, daring and completely absorbing. It will rattle our complacency; it will prick our conscience."
Powells.com -- "It will change your outlook on humanity and move you to evaluate your place within it."