August 18 – 24, 2023Vol. 25, No. 10

Good Prose

by Martha F. Barkley

Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd grabbed me because of my having read and remembered Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains and Strength in What Remains. Both are riveting stories about monumental people and events you never heard of, at least I had not.

Among the public library shelves, Good Prose, a shiny covered new book published in 2013, was there for me to check out. New England favorite authors are within: Stephen King’s On Writing is listed in the selective bibliography, Henry David Thoreau explored on five pages, and our very own E.B. White on four pages along with his professor William Strunk on two additional pages.

I did enjoy reading how these two friends and writers over three decades long grew into this book of knowledge about writing investigative journalism and the editing process. For Kidder to switch places in the writing process with his editor Richard Todd is a revealing informative tunnel to tour.

Much is written about my favorite prior reads by Kidder, Strength and Mountains. It’s good to reread how these two masterpieces came to be.

Deo’s travail, spending time with him in New York and Boston, interviewing people who had helped him, and traveling with him to Burundi and Rwanda.


Most important, retelling the story in first person helped the reader see…what the book was really about. It was not just about extraordinary resilience and courage, but also about memory and how the mind can work to repair itself after devastating experience.

How very helpful to find how health can be healing after time passes, even after Deo’s devastating experiences here in the U.S., many seemed third-world to me in their depravity.

The central figure in the story, Dr. Paul Farmer, was not…particularly famous…What Kidder realized finally was that he had to be a stand-in for the skeptical reader…Thus Kidder for the first time portrayed himself, registering the discomfort and diminishing skepticism that he had felt while traveling with Farmer.


One of the side effects of saints (Farmer) is that they can make the rest of us feel crummy, or even annoyed…Paul Farmer is revealed to us through the growing comprehension of the narrator.

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White was my bible while in college. Little did I know then that I would live summers on Great Pond where E.B. White spent August delight from age six onwards. Charlotte’s Web was introduced to me in children’s litt class around 1969 or thereabouts. Just that one book through the years of teaching public school kids in Maryland is enough to stamp anyone’s heart.

When I finally discovered the “Once More to the Lake” essay and its numerous rewrites, I had experienced decades at Little Sebago with family in various rental cottages. We returned year after year to a spot of heaven where “things don’t change much.” Little did I know that we would buy an old camp on Great Pond with Girls Camp Runoia as our neighbor.

Then the mailboat came by our dock everyday. Oops, On Golden Pond again. I bet Ernest Thompson honored the advice of Strunk and White with “Omit needless words.”

Think about “suck face” in On Golden Pond. How brief can one be with Old Poop and the young toughie from California.

In his introduction to The Elements of Style, E. B. White suggests that the reader is always in danger of confusion. The reader is “a man floundering in a swamp,” and it falls to the writer…to “drain this swamp quickly and get his man up on dry ground, or at least throw him a rope.”

Henry David Thoreau, who explored our Kennebec River and up north on many New England ventures, wrote, “I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute Freedom and Wildness, as contrasted with a Freedom and Culture merely civil…‘Walking’ debuted as a lecture in 1851…All its experience can be brought to bear; no subject is too small to notice or too big to contemplate. Emerson wrote even more expansively…”

More New England writers, Emerson, too. Read this great book about writing, and take a walk with our poets, “This is the forest primeval,” as Mom and I walked around Little Lake Sebago and many Belgrade walkers do Point Road near Runoia everyday with tall pines providing cool shade on the hottest summer day.

Cool off in the lake and remember E.B. White did his daily canoe paddles near shady shores and enjoying the quiet big blue waters. He even took his son Joe to Bear Springs, where morning swims brought out the goose bumps for both father and son.

Good Prose is “[s]tories and advice from a lifetime of writing and editing,” by Pulitzer Prize writer Tracy Kidder and his editor Richard Todd. Rich stories and rich writing, indeed.

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