My audiobook listening time is currently being consumed by Tracy Kidder’s wholly absorbing Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World. If you haven’t yet had your eyes and mind opened widely by a reading of this book, I urge you to rush out and get your hands on a copy immediately. In his September 14, 2003 review for the New York Times Book Review, Abraham Verghese wrote the following, which pretty well sums up the feeling many of us have had while reading this book:
”Mountains Beyond Mountains” is inspiring, disturbing, daring and completely absorbing. It will rattle our complacency; it will prick our conscience. One senses that Farmer’s life and work has affected Kidder, and it is a measure of Kidder’s honesty that he is willing to reveal this to the reader. In 1987, a book called ”And the Band Played On” changed the direction of my career and that of many physicians of my era who decided to devote themselves to the care of persons with AIDS; I had the same feeling after reading ”Mountains Beyond Mountains”: that after I’d read the book something had changed in me and it was impossible not to become involved.
Read this book and see if it doesn’t change you. Then sit down and read a few books by Roald Dahl.
Ophelia Magdalena Dahl, one of Roald’s daughters, features prominently in Mountains Beyond Mountains because Ophelia herself features prominently in the success of Paul Farmer’s award-winning non-profit health care organization, Partners in Health. Ophelia is, in fact, a co-founder of PIH and its current director. She has worked tirelessly to provide quality health care to the world’s poor since her first trip to Haiti at the age of 18.
What are the common threads, I wondered, between the motivations of a man who writes books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the motivations of a woman who delivers comprehensive health care to Third World countries plagued by malaria, tuberculosis, and AIDS? It turns out I missed what would have been a very convenient chance to hear Ophelia answer my question herself, when she delivered the 2006 commencement address at Wellesley College (a stone’s throw from our bookstore!) barely a year ago. In her address Ophelia explained:
I grew up with a courageous and talented mother, a stepmother who flew from England to be here today, and a father who wrote stories for a living—mostly for children, which is good if you were his child.
He pushed up against limits to a delicious degree. For the first 10 years of my life, I had been fed nightly stories of “fleshlumpeating giants” and “snozwangers” and “vermicious knids.” I was convinced that a “fire-breathing bloodsuckling stonecheckling Spitler” lived in the woods outside my bedroom window….
My father led me to believe for years that passing a mathematics test had more to do with which dream powder a giant blows into your bedroom window that night than actually studying for an exam. He was convinced that imagination would be the most vital ingredient for a fulfilling life and told me that if, at times, all you have is your imagination, you will rarely feel alone…. Through his gentle urging I have relied on my imagination enough to make it less of a jump to connect my life with the lives of those I can’t see. I urge you to do the same because a great deal of what you do will be influenced by your ability to imagine an improved outcome, or a better device, or a more efficient system, a new vaccination, or a vastly different Supreme Court.
Imagination will allow you to make the link between the near of your lives with the distant others and will lead us to realize the plethora of connections between us and the rest of the world, between our lives and that of a Haitian peasant, between us and that of a homeless drug addict, between us and those living without access to clean water or vaccinations or education and this will surely lead to ways in which you can influence others and perhaps improve the world along the way.
If Ophelia’s introductions to her father’s flights of fancy sowed the seeds of her success, then she has arguably validated the defense Roald wrote in the February 1973 issue of The Horn Book Magazine, in response to some rather scathing remarks by Eleanor Cameron:
We have had five children. And for the last fifteen years, almost without a break, I have told a bedtime story to them as they grew old enough to listen. That is 365 made-up stories a year, some 5,000 stories altogether. Our children are marvelous and gay and happy, and I like to think that all my storytelling has contributed a little bit to their happiness…