Review: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

September 27, 2011 Comments Off on Review: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

This book is absolutely stunning. The writing is perfect and the story is fascinating. It teaches you a million things about Hmong culture and embroiders them into a gigantic lesson on cross-cultural understanding, plus incidental geography and history lessons you (I) never knew. I hereby place this book on my Important Books list. So there.

The main story follows a little Hmong girl named Lia who develops severe epilepsy. Her parents say she has the disease where the spirit catches you and you fall down, which is frequently associated with shamanism. Naturally distrustful of Western medicine, they don’t even necessarily want her illness to go away. Add to this a complete ignorance of English (but a willingness to lie through an interpreter if it will keep dangerous medicines out of your daughter’s body) and illiteracy in both English and Hmong, and you have the perfect recipe to drive California doctors up the wall. It’s painful to read because Fadiman does a perfect job of representing both viewpoints; she demonstrates that if you understand one party you are furious, but if you understand both, you are paralyzed.

The story is great—the telling is perceptive and sympathetic—and it reads like a good novel. My only quibble with it is the organization: Fadiman sometimes alternates gripping chapters about Lia with dry-ish chapters about the Hmong and the Vietnam War, which is all very interesting and I didn’t know most of it, but… I want to know what happened to Lia! I wonder what it is about history that makes it hard to write non-drily. The writing was puzzling because it was only in these few chapters that it failed. Elsewhere it was beautiful and readable and excellently done, but interspersing the great writing with dry chapters that took away from the main story was frustrating. Other than that, no criticism whatsoever. What a wonderful wonderful book. Go read.


In an intermediate French class at Merced College a few years ago, the students were assigned a five-minute oral report, to be delivered in French. The second student to stand up in front of the class was a young Hmong man. His chosen topic was a recipe for la soupe de poisson: Fish Soup. To prepare Fish Soup, he said, you must have a fish, and in order to have a fish, you have to go fishing. In order to go fishing, you need a hook, and in order to choose the right hook, you need to know whether the fish you are fishing for lives in fresh or salt water, how big it is, and what shape its mouth is. Continuing in this vein for forty-five minutes, the student filled the blackboard with a complexly branching tree of factors and options, a sort of piscatory flowchart, written in French with an overlay of Hmong. He also told several anecdotes about his own fishing experiences. He concluded with a description of how to clean various kinds of fish, how to cut them up, and finally how to cook them in broths flavored with various herbs. When the class period had ended, he told the other students that he hoped he had provided enough information, and he wished them good luck in preparing Fish Soup in the Hmong manner.

The professor of French who told me this story said, “Fish Soup. That’s the essence of the Hmong.” The Hmong have a phrase, hais cuaj txub kaum txub, which means “to speak of all kinds of things.” It is often used at the beginning of an oral narrative as a way of reminding the listeners that the world is full of things that may not seem to be connected but actually are; that no event occurs in isolation; that you can miss a lot by sticking to the point; and that the storyteller is likely to be rather long-winded. I once heard Nao Kao Lee begin a description of his village in Laos by saying, “It was where I was born and where my father was born and died and was buried and where my father’s father died and was buried, but my father’s father was born in China and to tell you about that would take all night.” If a Hmong tells a fable, for example, about Why Animals Cannot Talk or Why Doodle Bugs Roll Balls of Dung, he is likely to begin with the beginning of the world. (Actually, according to Dab Neeg Hmoob: Myths, Legends and Folk Tales of the Hmong of Laos, a bilingual collection edited by Charles Johnson, those two fables go back only to the second beginning of the world, the time after the universe turned upside down and the earth was flooded with water and everyone drowned except a brother and sister who married each other and had a child who looked like an egg, whom they hacked into small pieces.) If I were Hmong, I might feel that what happened when Lia Lee and her family encountered the American medical system could be understood fully only by beginning with the first beginning of the world. But since I am not Hmong, I will go back only a few hundred generations, to the time when the Hmong were living in the river plains of north-central China.


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