One year of Stronger than Death: What people wish I had done differently

The most critical pushback I have experienced for the story of Stronger than Death has been from American Christians. We are a hard group to please!

I told a story and tried to be as faithful as possible to the research, interviews, letters, and photographs used to uncover that story. But I’m telling the story of a woman I never met, who is now dead. There is, by necessity, interpretation.

I also told a story which intersects with my own life, which was why I made the ultimate decision to place myself in the book, something I tried hard to avoid at first. This means at times I interact with the story I’m telling. Some readers told me they wished I had presented my own opinions about Annalena’s choices more firmly, or that I had pointed out where I (or they, or they assumed that I) disagreed with her thoughts or behavior. Maybe they’re right, I’m not sure. This isn’t my story and it isn’t a story of a worldview or a religious view in the way some readers hold it. It is Annalena’s, filtered through mine. I stand by what I wrote, which does make some people with some worldview uncomfortable.

This is not a missionary biography, which some readers read it as, because she was a Christian Italian living internationally and because I am a Christian American living internationally. But Annalena said herself that she was not a missionary. It isn’t a “how-to” book of how to live among people of a different religion and culture or of how to treat sick people or of how to develop systems of care or of how to change people’s minds about religion. Readers don’t have to agree with her choices, I don’t agree with all her choices. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read her story. If I could only read things I agreed with, well, that doesn’t leave me with much of anything and would be pretty boring. When I read things I disagree with, I am forced to respond to it, forced to figure out why I don’t agree, what I might do differently. This is what living abroad does for me, I live among people who see the world very differently to how I see it. This is fantastic for personal growth.

This is not a book that presents “The Gospel,” meaning it does not present a step by step guide of becoming a Christian as Evangelicals understand it. There is no Bridge Illustration, no Romans Road, no Sinner’s Prayer. Which I am comfortable with for all kinds of reasons I won’t go into here (teaser for Book Two!).

There is just a story of a woman who chose radical love both for people and for Jesus. She took the words of Jesus seriously, more seriously than almost anyone else I’ve read about or known. Give to those who ask. You can’t serve both God and money. Blessed are the poor. And I do find that inspiring.

Imagine if we all did that: chose radical love. What a world! We might not be so angry, broken, and divided.

I do know that some people wish I had written a more religious book while others wish I had written a more scientific book and others wish I had written a “how-to” book and others wish I wasn’t a white woman writing about a white woman in Africa (there is a whole chapter to address that).

I wrote the book I wrote. I will end by letting one reader’s words stand. This was written down after I gave a talk at a school in Djibouti. The person who wrote it read it out loud during a small group discussion afterwards. I asked for permission to photograph it because I found the words so moving.

Plough: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

Indiebound: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

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One year of Stronger than Death: What has been the impact of this book?

Writing the book impacted me by the sheer joy of immersing myself in Annalena’s story. I have been challenged in how much I am willing to give up, in my idea of what it looks like to love people and to be a good neighbor, in how I think about Jesus and how I choose to embody my faith convictions.

I believe a little bit deeper that I am loved. How did this come from writing a book? I called one of my sisters while on book tour, almost in tears. I told her I felt like such a fraud, fake, idiot, what was I even thinking in putting my creative work out there and asking people to buy it and respond to it…She said some loving, gentle things, and then basically told me to knock it off. “Are you having fun? Do you think maybe you’re good at this?” she asked. “You aren’t forcing people to read the book or come to your events. They come because you wrote a good book and because they either want to meet the author, or they love you and want to support you.”

It was positively mind-boggling to accept this. To believe it. And yet, how could I not? I felt so loved. So. Loved. It was such a powerful experience to meet people across the country and to reconnect with old friends. I can’t even put words to it, and I’m a writer. Y’all moved me to tears multiple times.

The book has not changed my life in remarkable ways. People often ask how it is selling and I say, it could always sell better (go get it here)! I don’t really know exactly. I do know that I broke even with how much I spent on the writing and research process. Which means I earned approximately $0.00 on my time spent writing, okay a little bit more but it gets complicated really quickly. That seems about average for authors. Maybe? Where on earth does the idea come from that writers are rolling in money? Sure, a few are. But the rest of us hope to break even and when we do, we’re thrilled. We aren’t in it for the money and certainly not the fame – which I do not have and do not want. We are in it for the work and the story and the delight and the compulsion.

The book has led to beautiful conversations with Somali Muslims, with American Christians, with French Muslims, with atheists…with people from any place and any religious background. It has opened up new friendships and connections and increased my belief that people are supportive, caring, and kind. Sometimes. But enough times that I will settle there in how I view “us.”

I had a couple of book events in Djibouti and hosted a giveaway for free copies. Many Djiboutians can’t afford the luxury of purchasing a hard cover book, or any book. It was with great joy that I totally rigged the drawings to make sure local readers won the free books and I’ve since heard from a few of them that they are powerfully moved by Annalena’s story.

One told me, “I want to love and serve the poor like Annalena did. She was motivated by her love for Jesus, and I want to live in a similar way.”

My own increased belief that I am loved, new friendships, inspiring a few people to care for the poor among them, and giving people a book they are glad to have read…these are some of the gifts and impacts of the book in this first year.

Plough: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

Indiebound: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

Barnes and Noble: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

Amazon: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

One year of Stronger than Death: Learning and Humility

Celebrating the one-year birthday of Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa.

Typing notes from interviews in Italy at a park outside the once-fortress of Caterina Sforza, now turned into a prison.

So many note cards! I need to see my work and touch it and move it around, not just on a computer. This filled our living room and I refused to use fans because the cards would fly around. Imagine! I also refused to let anyone else from the family enter the room for weeks on end.

Did you listen to The Caliphate podcast by Rukmini Callimachi? I did and I loved it. Now, a lot of her reporting (for that podcast and other pieces) is being called into question. This is so disappointing, frustrating, infuriating, confusing. And she, like many others, is doubling down rather than admitting she might have made some mistakes, might have been misled, might not be immune to human fallibility. By doubling down, she seems to be making things worse. Can we not just admit that every single one of us will make mistakes? If we can’t admit our own, how will we respond to others’ mistakes? We need grace, we need so much grace, and I want to be always practicing grace on me and grace on you. I tend toward cynicism and critical spirited, so this is a check on myself.

Let’s start with the parts that make me nervous.

Why on earth would a writer spill the beans on things that aren’t quite right in her work? Partly because of my pride. I want you to know that I know they are there. But that’s weird because it means pointing out things you might not have noticed otherwise. So at the same time, it takes me down a notch – revealing the imperfections. So why do it?

Because I find it fascinating. That is literally how much of a word nerd and book lover I am. I love this stuff – understanding why and how mistakes get made and overlooked, digging into the writing process, mental games, and even the publishing aspect of it all. I nitpick because it is interesting to me. I expose the nits I find because it is interesting and because I wish other authors did this more.

And let’s be clear, I am not blaming anyone for these things except myself.

Oh the folly of trying to do anything with perfection.

I cannot tell you how many times I read this book. I even read it out loud to myself. I read it so many times I could complete sentences in my mind or tell you which draft page they were on. But that’s a problem because it means the mind skips over things, or reads words and spellings that aren’t actually there.

There are some typos. And y’all know how I feel about typos. But, I keep finding them in other books (and I’m not even an editor, how must actual editors feel when reading these things?!), which helps, no one gets this right all the time. Not even National Book Award winners. What the what?! Its true. Finding them in my own work helps me have more grace on others. Take the plank out of your own eye first, right?

There is a factual error which partly comes down to being a sentence I had in my mind one way but the way it came out onto the page was different. The Somali President I mention who is assassinated wasn’t the first Somali President. He was the first Somali President to be assassinated. Grrr. I hate that I missed that. Most of you probably didn’t even notice.

(Oh and guess what – if you buy enough books and we do another edition, I get to fix these things! So go buy it, give it to people, use it as a giveaway, go nuts!)

Maybe we shouldn’t admit to mistakes like this in public, as authors. I don’t know. What’s the proper protocol here? Humility and transparency seem best but I could just be hopelessly naïve.

All of us make mistakes. It is OKAY. Let’s do our best. Let’s accept that everyone is doing their best.

Grace. Gentleness. Humility. Kindness. Oh how badly we need these traits in 2020.

Now you can leave comments telling me what an idiot I am, both for telling you these things and for making the mistakes in the process. I won’t read them. Or maybe I will. Or maybe not…

Buy the book!

Plough: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

Indiebound: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

Barnes and Noble: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

Amazon: Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa


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One year of Stronger than Death: Love and Service During a Deadly and Contagious Pandemic

Covid has made me think about tuberculosis many times (I also wrote about the way it connected with my cancer treatment here). Contagious, deadly, different people’s bodies have different responses, the feeling of being made a pariah or a leper, fear, societal changes, new vocabulary, life-long repercussions even when cured, global, no great treatment (yet), no vaccine (yet), racial dynamics, economics…

The overlaps could go on and on. And there are also the medical workers saving lives, risking their own lives, choosing to care for the vulnerable, and doing this in the middle of, in some places, broader violence and danger.

Like Annalena Tonelli did with tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa.

If you want to read about how a woman and a community faced their own “pandemic”, read this book. Read about how she consistently chose love and service over fear and rejection. Read about how she kept on choosing joy and life, even during war and terrible loss.

One reader asked if I hold Annalena as an idol. I don’t think I go to that extreme but I do admire, respect, and feel challenged by her. I know her weaknesses and the ways she frustrated some of the people around her. I know she wasn’t perfect and I don’t even come close to emulating her my own life. But I do find an example in her, an inspiration, ideas for how to live a little bit better, how to love a little bit more.

Every day this week, the 1-year birthday for Stronger than Death and the 17-year anniversary of Annalena’s murder, I will share experiences that I’ve had over the past year in talking about the book.

I’ll tell you about some mistakes and Lord knows I hate mistakes. About the value of reviews and how that little yellow “this book has issues” button that used to be on the Amazon page made me so mad. I’ll tell you about some of my favorite experiences while on book tour, share some reviews, share some reader concerns/issues, and give an update of the impact of the book. Be sure to check back in each day this week for these little tidbits.

And if you haven’t read the book yet, check it out! Also leave a review! Look at how excited I am, I’m using exclamation points!

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The Legacy of Annalena Tonelli, Carrying It On

Find Stronger than Death at Amazon,  Barnes and Noble,  and IndieBound

I love hearing how readers are moved and challenged and inspired by Stronger than Death. Some responses have even moved me to near tears.

I spoke at an English language school for adults in Djibouti. After my talk and an engaging Q/A time, students gathered in small groups to continue the discussion. One young man wrote his thoughts out and read them to the group. I asked if I could take a photo of his words and he gave me the paper. This is what he wrote:

“A good person is someone who displays love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, humility, patience, and she was faithful, and endures all things. Annalena was someone who displays self-control and considers others more important than herself. Annalena was a good listener and someone who displayed integrity and dignity and accountability toward others.”

This was so beautiful and it was incredibly meaningful that he picked up on these character traits. The conversation around the tables included things like how hard it can be serve, when other people tell you to not bother, or how disappointing it can be when service is rejected. We talked about how we can all take one little step, like picking up one piece of trash. Or how we can sit beside someone who is sick and be a loving, caring presence, even if we don’t have money to help treat their illness. And how we can hope to motivate others by our example.

It was lovely.


Here is from another reader. People have asked how I think Annalena would react to having a book written about her and I hope Jodie is right:

“I finished it with the sense that Annalena would be proud – even as one who didn’t like all the attention – because you portrayed her in her humanness as well as her saintlikeness.” Jodie P.


Someone else told me they finished the book with tears in their eyes and with ideas for how to be more aware of students in her classroom who might need a little extra affection or attention.


Another person told me she would use this book to help explain some of her Somali history and culture to her American coworkers.


Thanks to all for your feedback, for reading, and for sharing.

Don’t forget to leave a review and be sure to share the book with your friends and family! Maybe a great Christmas gift…!


Find Stronger than Death at Amazon,  Barnes and Noble,  and IndieBound



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