Saturday, February 11, 2017

Off the Shelf:
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down


Truth be told, while this spot in the month's posting lineup is usually reserved for books languishing on my shelves which I really did mean to read, today's book does not fall into that category. I never did mean to read it. The reason for that is simple: it wasn't my book, thus I never felt that obligation. In fact, having seen it, I never even felt the slightest twinge of desire to borrow it.

For one thing, if you think the title somewhat unusual, I haven't told you the entire story. The full title goes on to include the subtitle: "A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures."

Perhaps, like me, you find medical tales not your cup of tea. Nor may the cultural aspect seem enticing to you. And the term, "Hmong" may sound as foreign to you today as it did to our community over thirty years ago, when the first of these southeast Asian refugees began flooding into our local area.

It was back then that, coincidentally, I had taken a fresh-out-of-college "real" job (finally!) with our local civil service, and had been placed with the Medi-Cal branch of our welfare department. Shortly after completion of training, my assignment became case manager for refugee clients.

While that episode in my own life is far behind me now, I can't say I have enough of an affinity for that time period—certainly no nostalgia—to want to relive those work experiences.

So why read this book?

It was solely on a recommendation from my daughter that I picked it up. The little paperback volume is actually hers—one she read for a college class, herself.

Since I have been wanting to take some of the research I've been writing up here in this blog and turn that into a book featuring our family's stories, my daughter thought reading Anne Fadiman's tale of an epileptic Hmong refugee child would be an excellent primer. My daughter's specific reason is to let the author's skill in weaving the threads of background material, cultural relevance, medical details, and multiple narratives inform me as to how I might better handle such strands in my own writing.

Good point. Take the story of my grandmother's fourth cousin, John Syme Hogue—the guy who likely deserved to be hanged in Ontario for murdering the Winnipeg immigration official who was deporting him back to the United States, where he was to stand trial for safe cracking. How do you manage the multiple streams of information required to adequately unfold a story like that? There are numerous settings—West Virginia coal mines, midwestern billiards halls, a jail in Winnipeg, a long train ride across Canada, a man hunt in Ontario, international negotiations over legal issues and pardons, an eleventh hour release (straight into the arms of another arresting officer), even a mine explosion.

So, I've been studying the Fadiman book to gain inspiration on how authors do handle smooth explanations of sticky details. It certainly has been informative, though I still have quite a bit more reading to do.

It's amazing how much detail you can absorb from such a narrative, if the author has handled it right. Perhaps it all comes down to technique—how much the author can saturate the text with pertinent technical information is dependent on how able the writer is to transform each fact from obtuse, stand-alone detail to comfortably contextual package deal. If it's seamless, you don't notice how much you've come to know about the topic; after a while, you find you just know all that stuff. Without even realizing you learned it.

While for me, with my personal flashback to early work experiences remarkably within easy recall after all those years, the story may not be the same as it would be for you, the book still is not only an excellent example of how to blend details and narrative but an insightful unfolding of a complex cross-cultural dilemma. I've yet to complete it, of course, but now that I'm well into the middle of the volume, I'm thoroughly prepared with all the back-story and technical information.

With all the investment it took to mount that steep learning curve, I'm obviously keen to see how the key characters handle the continued unfolding of the problem. If all this detail hadn't been wrapped around a compelling human-interest story, you know there would be no way a simply curious onlooker would have stayed interested for this long. It's the story that makes the difference—but it's a story line which was able to absorb a great amount of technical detail and hold it without getting over-saturated in the process.

An informative tip for those of us wanting to share our own detail-laden family stories.



   

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