- Fizzy Thoughts: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

Saturday, April 11, 2009


The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
Anne Fadiman
September 1997
341 pages

This is weird, because I feel like I’ve already written a review for this book. I just can’t find it. So maybe I haven’t and I’m just hallucinating.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down was a book I had heard mentioned at various child welfare trainings over the past few years. After I read Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris, I realized that she was the author of this book. Given that the two books are nothing alike, I was finally curious enough to give it a shot.

And wow. This book should be required reading, since it shows how incredibly important cross-cultural training and understanding is. Because this book shows what can happen when people (even those with the best of intentions) don’t understand intrinsic beliefs of other cultures.

The book is set in Merced, which is located in the Central Valley of California. Merced has the largest population of Hmong immigrants in the United States. (And by the way, the Hmong are featured in Clint Eastwood’s latest movie, Gran Torino. Two thumbs up on that, too.) The book will explain, in detail, who the Hmong are, and what brought them to the US, and to Merced in particular. The story of the Hmong alternates with the story of one particular Hmong family, the Lees. Lia Lee, their young daughter, spent years in and out of the emergency room of the county hospital in Merced, due to what the doctors diagnosed as epileptic seizures. However, for the Hmong, Lia was believed to have suffered from a sudden fright, causing her soul to leave her body. Because her soul has left, the spirit is able to catch her…and she falls down.

Because the medical personnel have little to no understanding of Hmong beliefs, and because the Hmong have little to no understanding of Western medicine, what results is years of misunderstanding regarding Lia’s health, treatment, and needs. The doctor’s believe Lia’s parents are providing inconsistent care (mainly because they do not administer the prescribed medications correctly), while Lia’s amazingly devoted and doting parents believe that the medicine is bad. At one point, one doctor feels compelled to make a report to child welfare, and Lia is removed from her parents and placed in foster care.

Anne Fadiman did an incredible amount of research, and portrays both sides of the story with equal respect. She also gives enough background so that the reader understands the Hmong worldview…by the end of the book, everyone’s actions make perfect sense, which is part of what makes this story so compelling.

17 comment(s):

bermudaonion said...

Oh my gosh - that's just the kind of book I love. I love to read about other cultures and I love immigrant stories.

lilly said...

I have recently read this book for my book club discussion. I loved it, I finished it in one day, just couldn't put it down.

Beth F said...

This one sounds terrific! Thanks so much. And thanks to Lilly for the second opinion.

Joanne said...

This sounds fascinating! It's amazing how the lack of understanding between different cultures can cause such problems. I did a research paper once on a tribe from New Guinea called the Fore who were literally dying off from a disease known as Kuru, when North American doctors and scientists went to help they ended up making judgments against each others, the Fore thought the doctors were witches and the doctors assumed the Fore were basically sub-human. Anyway, it was near impossible to solve anything because of these cultural issues. So sad :(

Amy said...

This does sound excellent!! Thanks for the review.

Nymeth said...

This sounds absolutely amazing. Ex-Libris was already on my list, and now this is too.

charley said...

This sounds really interesting. I like the title.

claire said...

I haven't heard of this book before, just the Ex Libris. Adding to TBR because it sounds like something I would love to read. Thanks!

sophisticateddorkiness.com said...

I'm in the middle of this book right now -- I read a huge chunk of it on my bis ride from Madison to Minneapolis this weekend. I love how well Fadiman can make all of the characters sympathetic. It would have been easy to blame the doctors or the parents for what happened to Lia, but Fadiman stays away from that, which I think is awesome. I can't wait to finish it on the bus this afternoon.

Kim

softdrink said...

Kathy - Have you seen Gran Torino?

Lilly - You read it it one day!?! Dang!!

Beth - You're welcome. :-D

Joanne - I remember kuru from my anthro classes. I can totally see something similar happening.

Amy - yep, two thumbs up!

Nymeth - I really was pleasantly surprised by how fascinating the story turned out to be. Cause it could have gone the other way.

Charley - me too. And it really does describe epilepsy!

Claire - You're welcome, too. :-D

Kim - Yeah, it's a fantastic example of how to remain objective.

chartroose said...

This sounds great, especially since my sister has a Hmong family she's working with. I'll have to ask for her observations.

When's your b-day? Are you an Aries too?

Fyrefly said...

This actually was assigned reading for one of my anthropology courses in college, and I agree, it was amazing. Just about broke my heart, too.

JoAnn said...

I loved this book. It is still one of my book club's favorites, too, and we read it over 5 years ago!

Dawn - She is Too Fond of Books said...

Why haven't I heard of this book before?! Sometimes it's hard enough to communicate with people in my own family, add language/culture differences and there's a whole new layer of mishaps waiting to occur.

softdrink said...

Char - Taurus all the way!

Fyrefly - I know! But I love how the Lee's continued to lavish love and care on Lia.

JoAnn - I bet it made for a wonderful discussion!

Dawn - I'm really surprised this book isn't more well known. It's a hidden gem!

Ali said...

I read this a few years ago and found it really compelling. I hadn't thought to check on what else the author had written, I'll have to look into Ex Libris.

Ladytink_534 said...

I did that today! I looked everywhere for a review I'm nearly positive I had already written for A Maze of Bones and finally realized I had written the sequel's review instead.

In a real sense, people who have read good literature have lived more than people who cannot or will not read. It is not true that we have only one life to live; if we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish. ~S.I. Hayakawa

The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.
~St. Augustine

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.
~Mark Twain

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