This book is incredibly complex, which makes it a difficult book to write about. It’s a medical tome, yes, but it’s also a work of cultural history, detailing the past and present of the Hmong people. But what this book is, more than either of those things, is a testament to what happens when good intentions go bad because of cultural differences.
Lia Lee, daughter of Hmong immigrants, was eight months old when she first started having seizures. Her parents (somewhat unusually for Hmong, who notoriously don’t trust American doctors), took her to the hospital. And there her saga starts. There is time after time of misunderstanding, miscommunication (lack of interpreters only played a small role in that), and tragedy after tragedy in the life of this little girl. What impressed me most (and this is something that is often associated with this book) is that Anne Fadiman does an admirable job of portraying both sides — both the doctors’ and the parents’ attempts and efforts at helping Lia get better. Fadiman is often more sympathetic to the Lees’ side of the story, but she does give the doctors (who often come off as arrogant jerks) equal time — both of her own in doing the research as well as in the book.
Because Fadiman is a gifted writer, and in spite of her slips into journalistic bias, this book is a fascinating read, and the lessons about respect for others’ culture, beliefs and traditions is a valid, if not important, one.
Rated: Moderate. Some swearing, and explicit references, mostly in conjunction with Hmong culture.