Author: Anne Fadiman
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.
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!