As one might suspect, “The Big Truck That Went By” is not an easy book to read. Author Jonathan Katz was the only American journalist in Haiti when the 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit the impoverished island in 2010. The book promises to focus on the international community’s disastrous response, but Katz is too deft to work so narrowly. From the beginning, he links this disaster to Haiti’s history — of suffering, and of international intervention. He lays painfully bare the institutional instincts that impeded efficiency when the world descended on Port-au Prince; he does this with statistics and analysis, rendered more conversationally than the many white papers that have offered up similar lessons. His gifts as a storyteller are what drive the lessons home: At every turn, Katz has found a family whose lives after the earthquake illustrate the blind spots of bureaucratic thinking.
Those gifts make this book difficult to confront. Katz shares his own story of surviving the earthquake and of tending to his mental health in survival’s aftermath. He is indefatigable in his determination to tell the story of the earthquake as Haitians experienced it, and he is honest about the gulf between Haiti’s poor and the West’s wealthy rescuers. But that honesty never mutates into cynicism, and Katz’s determination to first approach everything in Haiti with compassion lifts the book above a tale of finger-wagging or self-flagellation. Katz’s Haiti is dynamic, complex and, yes, tragic. His book is wholly worth the struggle it demands.