“The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” by Anne Fadiman is undoubtedly one of my favorite books that I have read in the past several years. This nonfiction book deals with the culture clash between a Hmong family with a very sick child and her doctors in Merced, California. Lia Lee is the 14th of 15 children in her family, the eighth of nine who survived childhood, and the first to be born in the United States. At the age of three months Lia had the first of many seizures, but miscommunication during that first hospital visit led to an incorrect diagnosis.
This was only the first piece of what reads like some kind of tragic comedy of errors. Both sides want to help Lia, but neither is able to comprehend the other in the slightest. The Hmong have a name for what Americans call epilepsy, “quag dab peg,” which translates as the illness where the spirit catches you and you fall down. Though her family understands that Lia’s life is in jeopardy, they also believe that Lia is gifted with the ability to temporarily enter the spirit world during her seizures. Her parents wished to have a shaman treat her, which entailed practices that her doctors found outlandish, including animal sacrifices. In the end, Lia is worse off for the confusion and warring treatments.
Fadiman alternates chapters of Lia’s story with background information on the Hmong people, all the way from their origins in central Asia to their involvement in the Vietnam War and focusing on their transitions to life in the United States. I knew very little about Hmong culture before reading this book, but now I realize exactly how little I know about this extremely proud, unique and much-beleaguered group. Before reading Spirit, I had no idea that St. Paul is home to the second-largest Hmong population in America. I found the alternating informational chapters to be highly informative and interesting, and they tempered the difficulty of reading a book that is all the more tragic for its reality.