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Books: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

My friend J.M. reads nonfiction only. When she makes this brash statement, I mourn for all the fiction she misses. Sure, some fiction I’ve read in the past year has been flawed, but most fiction takes me for a ride, makes me laugh and smile and think about other lives.

9780374525644 Nonfiction, I find, is more of a chore. There’s a stated thesis, and footnotes, and — let’s face it — an arid tone. I’ll keep reading typically because there’s something I want to learn.

Imagine my surprise, and delight, to stumble upon Anne Fadiman’s “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down,” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $15). It was one of those annoying suggestions that pop up when I’m ordering from Amazon.com. I’m glad I took the bait.

“The Spirit…” tells the story of a Hmong family that flees Laos for a refugee camp in Thailand, then emigrates to the U.S., settling in central California. The Lees believe that when one of their daughters slammed the front door of their apartment, the soul of their baby daughter, Lia, was snatched by evil spirits. Thereafter, Lia became severely epileptic.

Fadiman tells the story of the U.S. doctors who try to save Lia, as well as her family’s efforts to heal her through Hmong ritual. It’s a heartbreaking, maddening tale that stretches back to the Vietnam War. Hmong warriors helped the U.S.; as a reward, the U.S. promised protection. That’s how Lia’s family was able to emigrate.

I’m not anti-immigration, or an isolationist, but I winced more than once when the Lees sacrifice pigs to heal Lia. The pigs are paid for from the family’s welfare funds.

Is it wise for the U.S. to take in illiterate immigrants? Lia’s parents are unemployable; they’d been slash-and-burn farmers in Laos. Neither can recognize letters or numbers. When Lia is sent home from the hospital with medications, no one is sure she’s receiving them, or receiving the correct dose.

Fadiman is a warm and wise storyteller, and a fearless reporter. Through her work, I came to understand the rich Hmong culture, which persists in spite of diaspora. Too, I came to honor the U.S. doctors who cared for Lia. One of them reminds us, emphatically: “Western medicine saves lives.”

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One thought on "Books: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down"

  • Jennifer Miller says:

    Anne,
    Interesting review. Definitely intrigues me and makes me want to read the book!


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