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Review: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

Title: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures

Author: Anne Fadiman

Pages: 341

Two Sentence Summary: Three-month-old Hmong immigrant Lia Lee suffers from debilitating epileptic seizures. Talented doctors and loving parents aren’t enough to save her, however, because of the vast cultural differences they aren’t able to overcome.

Two Sentence Review: This book is awesome. Seriously.

Rating: ★★★★★

Summary: When baby Lia is first brought to Merced Community Medical Center in Merced, CA, with seizures, the on-call doctor diagnosed her with bronchial congestion. Without an interpreter on staff her parents could not explain that this seizure was one of at least twenty Lia has experienced in the last month.  On one scary visit, on-call physician Dan Murphy had to give Lia a spinal tap, but could not explain what he was doing to her terrified parents.

After numerous visits to the crowded and overworked county hospital, Lia’s doctors diagnosed her with epilepsy. Her parents, on the other hand, called her illness qaug dab peg (“the spirit catches you and you fall down”). This deceptively simple difference is the catalyst for the cultural misunderstandings that plague Lia’s care and are the center of what The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down tries to explore.

Review: What journalist Anne Fadiman does best, in my opinion, is present this tragedy without placing blame or demonizing anyone involved. It would be easy for her to have chosen Lia’s doctors or Lia’s parents or just about anyone else in the story to place the blame with, but she doesn’t, and rightly so. What happened to Lia is a tragedy, but it’s also a tragedy for everyone else involved because it’s a tragedy most know could have been prevented if some level of cultural understanding could have been reached.

Instead of just explaining the tragedy in only it’s modern context, Fadiman traces the struggles of the Hmong community all the way back to their initial homeland in China, which they were forced out of hundreds of years ago. Since then,the Hmong people have suffered all over the place, and Fadiman follows this story parallel to her story about Lia. Following this story helps, in some ways, to make Lia’s story more understandable.

What it doesn’t do is make this story any less frustrating. As I read, I kept wanting to be mad at someone. I kept wanting to tell the characters what in hindsight they were so clearly missing. I wanted them, so badly, to just understand each other to help save Lia, but they couldn’t. It’s a hard book to read, but a book I couldn’t put down. I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about as I write this review.

I don’t think I can recommend this book highly enough. Anyone with even a passing interest in cultural differences, literary journalism, or stories that truly tug at your heart while still making you think should read this. You won’t regret it.

And now, the award I promised in my WG post yesterday! The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is the first recipient of “A+ Perfect Score”!


See, it’s me, waving my hands around with spirit fingers using my giant mouth to tell you to read this book!

Other Reviews: Book Addiction; AndiLit; Dog Ear Diary; Book Nut; SmallWord Reads;

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Devourer of Books May 7, 2009, 1:53 pm

    I’ve been wanting to read this for four or five years thanks for reminding me!

  • Jeanne May 7, 2009, 2:20 pm

    I guess this goes on my list for summer (“the imaginary time when I will have more time to read”).

  • Nymeth May 7, 2009, 2:57 pm

    Excellent review, Kim.. I’m definitely interested in cultural differences and understanding. I’ll have to get to this one soon.

  • bethany (dreadlockgirl) May 7, 2009, 3:31 pm

    YAY! that is awesome! I love your book award, it is so perfect. That book sounds outstanding! I have never heard of it, and now I am wishing I had it on my shelf to read. Lovely….there is no more room on my shelves 😉 I’ll make room.

  • Susannah May 7, 2009, 4:16 pm

    I, too, love this book. Haven’t read it in a few years, so perhaps I’ll go out and find it again. And another thing I love: your m4d gr4phix sk1llz 🙂

    Another thoughtful book I’ve enjoyed in the same sort of genre — memoir involving the confluence of social, medical and cultural issues and taboos — is My Own Country, by Abraham Verghese (probably better known for his later book The Tennis Partner).

    Link (because I wasn’t sure if your comments let me do HTML): http://www.amazon.com/My-Own-Country-Doctors-Story/dp/0679752927/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1241730853&sr=8-1

  • softdrink May 7, 2009, 7:00 pm

    Yay…I’m glad you liked this book so much. And I love your A+ award. Much better than pocket protectors. ;-b

  • Ali (Worducopia) May 8, 2009, 6:46 pm

    Nice review. This book really stuck with me. I read it years ago, and still think of parts of it when I come across local immigrants from that part of the world.

  • Claire May 8, 2009, 7:12 pm

    Loved this one too!

  • Fyrefly May 8, 2009, 11:10 pm

    Hee, that award is cute. I had to read this one for an anthropology course in college, and I absolutely loved it, despite it completely breaking my heart.

  • JoAnn May 9, 2009, 8:15 am

    I loved this, too…and it was the best discussion my book club has EVER had!

  • Care May 9, 2009, 8:06 pm

    I think I might have to recommend this for next book club!

  • Jason April 30, 2010, 1:47 pm

    Hi Kim,

    I came across your blog the other day while looking for reviews of this book. I was working on a paper about it and wanted to get some critical reaction. I love the concept of your blog. I actually just start my own, and your concept inspired me to do a review for my first post. Please check it out: http://whimsrandomwalk.wordpress.com/2010/04/30/review-the-spirit-catches-you-and-you-fall-down/#more-7

    • Kim May 1, 2010, 4:20 pm

      Jason: Thanks so much for stopping by. I hope your paper went well 🙂 This is one of my favorite books.

  • Sarah at SmallWorld Reads August 20, 2010, 6:08 am

    Great review–I’m linking to yours on my review.

    • Kim August 24, 2010, 8:48 pm

      Thanks Sarah, I’ll add yours as well.

  • Koren March 8, 2012, 4:32 pm

    This is one of my top 10 favourite books. I’m so glad to finally (FINALLY!) see someone else give it a positive review. I can’t seem to get anyone to even finish it (although your review caused my fellow blogger and friend to put it on hold at the library).

    • Kim March 18, 2012, 1:28 pm

      I’ve gotten a few people to read this one. I recommend it ALL THE TIME. Seriously, all the time. I need to reread it soon.