The book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman explores the theme that when people encounter another culture that they do not understand or is different than their own, they do not attempt to understand or accept it. The author discusses how the Hmong and American people do not understand each other’s culture and therefore encounter serious conflicts with each other because of it. “If the United States seemed incomprehensible to the Hmong, the Hmong seemed equally incomprehensible to the United States” (188).
In this story, Lia Lee, a poor Hmong toddler living in California, is diagnosed with severe epileptic seizures. Her parents, Nao Kao and Foua, do not trust Western medicinal practices due to poor quality care in a refugee camp when they were forced to migrate from Laos to the United States. They take Lia to the hospital anyway. The doctors want to perform countless procedures and give the child an abundance of medicine in order to help her. The parents decide not to give Lia most of her medicine because they do not believe it helps, causing the doctors to get increasingly frustrated. Along with cultural differences, the doctors and Hmong do not speak the same language, which results in serious communication difficulties. These two factors, along with mistrust and frustration, lead to significant conflict and tragic problems in Lia’s life.
There are numerous multicultural elements in this book. While telling Lia’s story, the book also talks about the history of the Hmong, their alliance with the United States during the Vietnam War, their time in refugee camp, the discrimination they face in America, and more. When the Hmong lived in Laos, they used herbs as well as soul-calling rituals to cure sickness. The Hmong culture revolves around the soul. As a baby, a ritual is performed to secure the soul in the body. However, the soul can still be lost by being stolen or hurt by a “dab”, an evil spirit that is a threat to souls. Soul-calling rituals are used if a soul is believed to have been harmed or lost. Lia’s parents believe something like this prompted her seizures. The seizures occurred after her sister slammed a door deafeningly loudly. Lia’s parents deem the noise scared Lia’s soul, causing it to flee her body. The book is rich with multicultural elements that can only be fully understood by reading the book.
I did enjoy this book. It shows two different perspectives on the same issue, and learning about another culture in detail was very interesting. I personally enjoyed learning about the medical aspects of the cultures and Lia’s story more than the history within it, but overall the book was entertaining. It was well written with specific details and many deep, controversial themes. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the medical field, different cultures, or history. The story of a young, helpless, dependent girl cursed with a severe condition who struggles to get better because her parents and the doctors cannot agree is emotional. The problems and tragedies that follow are heart-wrenching, eye-opening, and straight up sad. Yet the book is so interesting and informative and gives readers a fascinating story.