Book Review: STRONGER THAN DEATH by Rachel Pieh Jones

Be sure to read the author interview at the end. Rachel shares some of her memorable moments while researching for this book. You don’t want to miss that.

STRONGER THAN DEATH by Rachel Pieh Jones

Genre: Biography/Memoir

My Review:

STRONGER THAN DEATH tells the story of Annalena Tonelli, a woman from Italy, who was passionate about serving the poor, especially those affected by tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa. If you should Google Annalena’s name, you’ll find that she pushed the limits in most everything to accomplish all that she was involved in and honestly became well known in the world of humanitarian aid work. She has been described as a humanitarian aid worker, a missionary, a nun, and a social activist, though after reading this book I don’t believe she’d claim any of those descriptions. Through extensive research and countless interviews, Rachel shares a much broader picture of who Annalena was as a sister, a friend, a co-worker, a mother, and yes a Christian working with what many would label as “the least of these”. Annalena struggled, but as her story unfolds we see that her faith and love for the people she served came from God alone. Interwoven throughout this biography is historical and cultural facts about the people that call the Horn of Africa home, but it is also a memoir of sorts as Rachel shares how she and her family were affected by Annalena’s murder. On top of all this, there is some journalist reporting, as Rachel shares her own thoughts and questions regarding some of the decisions that Annalena made. I believe that if you are interested in the Horn of Africa, humanitarian aid work, female genital mutilation, or Muslim/Christian relationships than you should read this book.

My Take:

I cannot lie – this is a must read for any adult. You will be challenged in the way you think and live your life. I highlighted many sections of this book because the quotes are THAT good. Rachel’s style of writing was so refreshing to me – the threads of Annalena’s life, the culture of the nomadic people, the hot topics that are still relevant today, and Rachel’s own life all woven together really create just a beautiful wall tapestry that can be read in a book. Because honestly, a beautiful life comes from what we learn and gain from the hard and challenging, and yes even suffering that we go through.


I can tell you’ve done extensive research for this book. It not only covers the life of Annalena, but some very hard topics and places in Africa. How long did it take from research to final draft? 

 I kind of started the research, without knowing it, when my family moved to and then fled from Somaliland in 2003! But that was just research by experience. The actual digging in and finding people and documents and dreaming of a book started around late 2013 with some conversations with my research partner, Matt Erickson. At first we talked about a film project, but it morphed into this book. I was finally able to gain access to her family members and other key people in 2016 and sold the book in 2017.

Were their times you just wanted to give up? If so, how did you stick with it and finish?

So many times! But two in particular. The first was when it became clear that her family in Italy weren’t initially excited about this project and wouldn’t answer any questions or engage with me. But after a full year of slowly massaging that relationship, of explaining that my goal wasn’t to sensationalize but to tell the real story (which had been sensationalized and manipulated in the past, and this hurt them, so they stopped talking with people), and through the quality documentary Matt Erickson produced for the UNHCR about her life (again demonstrating that I wanted to be respectful and accurate), they were willing to talk with me. And once they opened up, they really opened up! Other people were then willing to talk with me, they shared papers and photographs and it was absolutely incredible. The second time was when it took me so long and so many rejections to sell the book. I went through two agents and multiple conversations with editors but nothing worked out, nothing felt right, until I found Plough Publishing. I think I just felt compelled to press on, convinced there was an audience for this and even simply value in doing the work, because of how I was so personally impacted by what I found – which started to find its way into the manuscript as well.

Of all the people you interviewed, of the countless places you traveled, who or what stands out most in your mind?  

Oh wow. So many. So many good, beautiful people. The exchange of some of her items – that really moved me. Maria Teresa, her best friend, gave me one of Annalena’s prayer books. And Antonio, who had been held hostage with her, gave me her red blanket. Both times, I cried. That people would trust me and share these treasures was powerful. In a way, it was like they were urging me to carry on her legacy – both through telling the story and in learning to live a little bit more like her – more love, more courage. Also, Elmi Mohamed, a nurse who worked with her in Wajir, to hear his stories about the Wagalla Massacre…and to see his continued service to his people in Kenya, it was powerful.

What genre would you label STRONGER THAN DEATH? I mean, it is a biography, but really it seems more than that.    

Biography, but also history, science, maybe spiritual? Memoir a bit…the largest term I use is narrative nonfiction, but to non book nerds, that doesn’t communicate a whole lot. Well, to this book nerd, it makes sense. I think that is one of the reasons I liked it so much because it was such a mixture of different genres.

Is there a story or an inspiration for the title?

Titles are so hard for me. We probably spent hours, days even, with list and lists and white boards and spread sheets, tweaking every word. Ultimately, it was the title Plough picked.

Do you mind sharing your favorite quote from Annalena?

She once said, about people doing humanitarian aid, “our coming here only has meaning if we are joyfully willing to be manure.” When I read that, I thought, WHAT?! Manure? That wasn’t what I wanted to be, for sure, in doing humanitarian work. And yet…she was right. To be effective, to truly help, we need to be humble, low, learners, we need to help other people flourish. She wasn’t just saying be like a pile of crap! But manure, at least in composting, also helps people flourish. So be low yourself, so that others can rise up and be great.

So, as I was reading Annalena’s story a few other names came to my mind: Amy Carmichael and Gladys Aylward. I didn’t think of them as the “Mother Theresa” figure types, but more that these ladies all had high expectations for themselves in living and working, but also for those who wanted to “help” them in the work. I find in them what Angela Duckworth wrote about in her book, GRIT. I see it in them. Any thoughts on this idea?

You know, her family balked at the term Mother Teresa, and I did at first too. It almost can seem cliché. But it also captures a certain way of life and character of being with just two words. And that helps, when talking about a book! She certainly had grit, she could be stubborn and hardheaded, which I think is often what is necessary to also be productive.

Do you think that other women from our generation or younger that will pick up this baton that these women had and carry it out in other parts of the world?                 

I hope women will pick this up, I know some Somali women themselves who are serving in the Horn – Kali for example, one of the girls Annalena took in, is now the headmistress of a deaf school in rural Kenya. I think there is a kind of push-back about race and colonial attitudes and I agree that white people need, myself included, to be wise and sensitive and humble. We have made so many mistakes and need to do better. But I don’t believe that means we, or black and brown people, shouldn’t do service across race and cultural boundaries. I think that is what makes the world beautiful – that we aren’t confined to one culture or one location or one racial community, but that we can learn to love and support and be supported by people different from ourselves.

Okay lighter questions… Do you have another project started or thinking about a new one? Can you share or is it too early for sharing. =)  

I do! I’m under contract for a second book with Plough, manuscript due in April. I can’t say a whole lot about it except that it explores similar themes but from a much more personal perspective. Ooh, can’t wait to hear more about this when you can share more.

Have you come to love the desert, yet? 

Haha! Sometimes. Isn’t that a terrible answer? I do miss Minnesota lakes though.

Thank you so much, Rachel, for your time and answers.

If you would like to learn more about this book, check out this book trailer. You can pre-order (release date is 10/1/19) your copy of STRONGER THAN DEATH at these locations: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indie Bound

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