Book: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman

Very good story of Hmong immigrants to the United States

Anne Fadiman
The Sprit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1997
ISBN-13: 978-0-374-52564-4
ISBN-10: 0-374-52564-1
292 pages (main text)

The story of immigrants to the United States has been told many times, but it can rarely have been told as as sensitively by an outsider as Anne Fadiman does in The Sprit Catches You and You Fall Down. The book is about the Lee family who live in Merced, California. They're recent immigrants from Laos, but they're ethnically Hmong.

As far back as anyone can determine, the Hmong have lived in the mountains of southern China. In the past several hundred years some have migrated to the mountains of the various countries of Southeast Asia. Many Hmong in Laos fought on the American side during the war in Vietnam and most were abandoned by the American military and CIA when they pulled out. Those that remained in Laos were not treated well by the new communist government there. Some, including the Lees, endured a harrowing exodus to refugee camps in Thailand. That was often followed a hardly-less-harrowing resettlement in the vastly alien culture of the United States.

As if that weren't enough for the Lees to endure, their daughter Lia, who was born in 1982 in Merced, was born with epilepsy. Some sorts of epilepsy respond relatively well to treatment. Lia's didn't. (The title of the book is the literal translation of the Hmong term for epilepsy.) The medical issues of having an epileptic baby would be difficult for any family. For a family such as the Lees who had very little English and very little understanding of the virtues and limitations of western medicine, it was a particular nightmare.

But those are just facts and events, and the book isn't mainly about facts and events. The book is mainly about people and culture. And Ms Fadiman does an excellent job of revealing the characters of the Hmong people she talks with and the Americans they interact with. She does an equally excellent job of discussing Hmong culture and the and the clashes between it and American culture. Hmong culture has traditionally been animist and Hmong people have traditionally made no distinction between the health of the body and the health of the soul. How could an American doctor explain a diagnosis in terms that were meaningful to someone of that culture? Worse, how could an American doctor explain the limitations of western medicine? How could a doctor explain that not all drugs work equally well on all people and that we don't yet know why.

Though the main theme of the book is of a tragedy, there are many bright points in it and the mood of the book is not one of pessimism. The Lee family show more kindness, generosity, and hospitality than any people in their position could be expected to. And there are people who make efforts, some small and some pretty heroic, to help and understand the Lees.

Ms Fadiman's prose and narration are admirably clear. Still, a couple of points deserve a little more explanation. Even in Laos, the Hmong community was at least somewhat fragmented and some customs she describes aren't quite universal. In addition, it's not unusual for even a highly educated Hmong person not to have learned to write the language. The most popular writing system for Hmong was invented only in the 1950s and not much has been written with it. That is, there's a sort of chicken-and-egg problem with someone taking the trouble to learn it.

Ms Fadiman's editor might have suggested that "bemused" would probably have been better as "slightly amused" (p. 127).

Posted: Mon - April 9, 2007 at 06:52 PM   Main   Category: