Tracy Kidder begins his book by noting that he first met Dr. Paul Edward Farmer in 1994, “because of a beheading.” Kidder, a journalist, was in Haiti at the time, reporting on American soldiers who’d been sent to fight a military junta (ruling faction) and support the country’s new democratic government. The American soldiers were badly outnumbered, making it difficult for them to keep order. Recently, one of the democratically elected leaders of the country had been found headless in a river.
Kidder starts his book with a bang, immediately introducing us to the dangerousness of life in Haiti: this is clearly an impoverished third-world country, with an unpredictable government. The picture Kidder paints in these opening pages—a handful of American soldiers attempting to maintain peace through force—suggests that Kidder’s book is at least partly about America’s foreign policy, and its relationship with the Third World.
In 1994, Kidder meets Captain Carroll, the leader of the American troops in Haiti. Carroll is a sincere, earnest man, who devotes huge amounts of his time to helping the Haitians. He resides in the military barracks near the river.
Although this book is full of denunciations of American foreign policy, Kidder still makes it very clear that as individuals, the majority of Americans are good, honest people trying to do their best with limited resources.
One day in December, the barracks gets some visitors. A group of four Haitians tells the soldiers that a doctor named Paul Farmer has come to see Captain Carroll. Kidder notices immediately that Farmer is short, delicate, and skinny. Farmer asks Carroll if his military team has been having any medical issues. Then he tells Carroll that he doesn’t approve of the U.S.’s plan for helping Haiti—it’s too business-friendly, he claims. Farmer argues that the Haitians are losing confidence in the U.S. military. Kidder senses that Farmer has far more experience with Haiti than Carroll does. Farmer boldly tells Captain Carroll that he should arrest the junta leaders suspected of the beheading. Carroll tells Farmer that he’s constrained by his orders. After much arguing, Farmer leaves, along with his Haitian companions.
Farmer is an anomaly in this scene: he’s an American, not a Haitian, and yet he doesn’t associate with the army. Indeed, he actively opposes American military intervention. This is the perfect way to introduce Farmer to the book: he represents a hitherto untried “third way” for Haiti, combining respect for Haitian tradition with the advantages of American medicine and technology. When we first meet Farmer, we see him as a clever negotiator, but ultimately an ineffective one. At the end of the day, Farmer is most productive as a doctor, not a politician: Kidder will keep returning to this idea.
A few weeks later, Kidder meets Farmer on board a flight to Miami. On the flight, Farmer gets to talking about the military. He tells Kidder that he has the utmost respect for soldiers, but he despises the American leadership that orders them to risk their lives making bad decisions in foreign countries. In Haiti, he explains, American soldiers are unpopular because they’ve allowed hated junta leaders to go free. Farmer also tells Kidder that he studied medicine and anthropology at Harvard: he holds both an M.D. and a Ph.D.
Farmer is clearly an intelligent man. Unlike most doctors—even the doctors who devote their lives to practicing medicine in the Third World—he has a deep understanding of the political and economic sources of inequality: in short, he knows why the Third World remains poor and dangerous. This is reflected in Farmer’s anthropological training: rather than only studying medicine, he also studies the culture and history of the places where he works.
A few weeks later, Kidder invites Farmer to dinner in Boston. Above all, Kidder is struck by Farmer’s easy-going attitude—he seems totally happy with his own life. Farmer is also optimistic about Haiti. He claims that Americans can do a great deal of good by trying their best and following their instincts. Kidder finds this a little hard to swallow: his time in Haiti has convinced him (along with many of the soldiers) that there’s nothing America can do for the country. No matter what, there will always be poor, suffering Haitians. Kidder notes that he wouldn’t see Farmer again until 1999.
The first thing that interests Kidder about Farmer is that Farmer seems to be completely happy with his life. Although Kidder’s book is a fascinating work of history and journalism, it’s also about the ethics and philosophy of happiness. Kidder wants to ask the question, “What does it take to be truly happy?” and, even more to the point, “Why don’t more people devote their lives to helping those in need?”