I first read Fadiman’s book in my MFA program because it was one of those books that teachers said that every creative nonfiction writer should read. I groaned, bought the book, and loved it.
The story, in brief, tells the tale of the Hmong people, specifically the Lee family, who live in Merced, CA. Their young daughter, Lia, begins having seizures and is eventually diagnosed with epilepsy, a disease that the Hmong call “the spirit catches you and you fall down.” The Lees see Lia’s illness as fortuitous because in their culture shamans and blessed people have epilepsy. The book chronicles the cultural battle between Lia’s doctors and her parents – treat with medicines vs treat with herbs and love.
The book does an amazing job of showing the great strengths and weaknesses of both cultures – Hmong and western medicine. Fadiman creates no villains in this book (except perhaps the U.S. Government who enlisted the Hmong as secret fighters in Laos during the Viet Nam War). No one is right completely; no one is wrong completely. The book gives us life in all it’s complexity.
I decided to teach this book in my freshmen composition class this spring because the theme for our course was “discrimination,” and this book shows that topic in a lot of different lights. My students – those who chose to read – rocked this book. They understood it; they sympathized with a variety of people. It opened their eyes to a new culture and to seeing that there isn’t always a “right” choice, that life is complicated. I hope that they will be able to apply these ideas to their own complicated lives where sometimes there are no good choices.
I love this book, too, because of the writing. Fadiman is able to give us Hmong cultural history, western medical terminology, and her own perspective on this situation in a way that is both fair and deeply passionate. Her presence in the story is delineated because it’s important that we understand how she got her information, but she is able to pull herself out of the frame and just narrate.
So pick up the book – you can probably mooch it – it’s great summer reader.