This is a fantastic work of journalistic nonfiction. It begins with a toddler, Lia Lee, living in California in the 1980s. The daughter of Hmong refugees, Lia begins suffering epileptic seizures as an infant, but her treatment goes wrong as her parents and the American doctors are unable to understand and respect one another. The book expands outward from there, exploring the history and culture of the Hmong, their enlistment in the U.S.’s secret war in Laos, and their subsequent refugee experiences. And then too it is about medicine, the goals of American medicine and what it means for health care providers to be culturally competent.
Fadiman packs so much into just 300 pages (and that’s counting the 2012 afterword, which you should definitely read). And it’s so brilliantly done. She conveys tons of information, but in such an accessible and compelling way that the book is a page-turner; I sped through it in just a few days. She’s a fantastic storyteller, keeping the reader always wanting more, and at the same time, shows humility and a willingness to engage with difficult issues. She presents arguments from many different viewpoints, and all of them sympathetically; she isn't afraid of facts that run counter to her arguments, nor does she dismiss opposing opinions out of hand. After wrestling herself with a collision of two cultures, she comes out of it able to portray both worldviews, seeing the merits in everyone's arguments, and looking for better systems to solve problems rather than casting blame on individuals.
Overall, an incredibly thorough, thoughtful, and engaging work that I would absolutely recommend, regardless of whether you’re in the medical field (I am not). Happily, one can now also read memoirs by Hmong authors, such as The Latehomecomer, which tracks the experiences recorded in this book closely but from a first-person perspective.