Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World Part II, Chapter 5 Summary and Analysis

Tracy Kidder

Part II, Chapter 5 Summary and Analysis

Chapter 5 steps back emotionally from Haiti and moves back through time to give Paul Farmer's biography. In 1959, Farmer was born in North Adams, Massachusetts. He had three sisters and two brothers. His father, Paul Sr., was a large and energetic man who loved sports and physical activities, but did not always have complete focus. His mother, Ginny, left college to marry Paul Sr., and she and the family accompanied him through a range of adventures. In 1966, Paul Sr. moved the family to Birmingham, Alabama, and then, in 1971, to Florida in a school bus Paul Sr. had purchased. The family lived in the bus for some time, with erratic power and no running water, and sometimes slept in a tent. About the time Paul Jr. (who was called PJ) was entering high school, his father bought an old boat and started restoring it for the family to live on, even though he knew nothing about boats. When they eventually tried to take the boat to sea, Paul could not navigate, and ran the boat onto a sandbar. Paul Sr. died at age forty-nine, after a game of basketball.

Throughout this strange childhood of adventure, Paul faced a mix of complete acceptance and extremely high standards. The family mixed with people of all classes, and Paul Sr. had an affection for social "underdogs." At the same time, Paul Sr. was extremely hard on his children, always pushing them to do better academically.

This chapter shows how many of Paul Farmer's actions and attitudes are deeply rooted in his childhood, and even grew out of his family. An average middle-class American who lived in a house and the same town his whole life would have found Haiti impossibly challenging. Paul Farmer had lived with blacks and whites, with the poor, and as an outsider. Paul Farmer's standards for himself are extremely high, so high that it seems impossible that he would ever feel like he had done enough to help the Haitian poor—and that seems very close to Paul Farmer Sr.'s rigorous standards turned to the realm of medicine. Just as earning an "A" produced a question from Paul Sr. about why it wasn't an "A+," so working twelve-hour days healing the poor produces a question from Paul Jr. about why he did not work fourteen hours. It also established Paul as someone who must carry his home with him because he is already completely out of place wherever he goes. Paul's interest in science, and his gifts for it, can be seen in his early affection for herpetology. His distinctive spiritual vision, which found itself expressed more clearly in literature like Tolkien and Tolstoy than in traditional religion, can be seen emerging now as well. Finally, Paul Sr.'s assumption that he could do anything himself, that he could teach himself, and that he could make it work, somehow, can be seen in Paul Jr.'s efforts at social medicine and treatment adaptation.