Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Impossible Knife of Memory, by Laurie Halse Anderson

Title: The Impossible Knife of Memory
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers
Year: 2010
Pages: 391
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Themes: War, Family, PTSD, Suicide
Age Range: 9th-12th Grade

Hailey Kincain and her father Andy have been on the road for the last five years, trying to outrun Andy's post-traumatic stress disorder, Andy, a Gulf War veteran, has had trouble reintegrating into society since he came home from Iraq. Now that Hailey is in high school,  he's decided that it's time to stop moving, and they return to their hometown so Hailey can go to proper school.  While Hailey desperately wants a normal life, every day brings the constant fear that her father will fall victim to the demons that he's carried around with him since his time in the war. When she meets Finn, a hot boy from school who actually seems to like her, she dares to hope that maybe things are turning in her favor. But being home doesn't seem to be helping her dad recover from his PTSD, and when he starts using drugs and alcohol as a way to cope, Hailey worries that his terrible memories from the war will finally push him over the edge.

This young adult novel is a beautiful, heartbreaking, harrowing tale of the consequences of war on the people who fight it; consequences that affect not just them but everyone who loves and cares about them. Hailey-smart, mature for her age, forced to grow up before anyone should have to-is the caretaker of her little family. She spends so much time worrying about and caring for her father and his emotional symptoms that she really has no normal teen-age experience. She's constantly vigilant, attuned to every nuance of her father's behavior, prepared to do whatever it takes to keep him safe from himself. What she has to learn, and what Finn helps to teach her, is that her wanting him to be safe is not enough; he has to be willing to ask for and accept help to recover from his PTSD.

I think this novel will speak volumes to any young person who has personal experience with family members who have mental illness, especially PTSD. Hailey feels responsible for her father in a way no teenager should feel responsible for a parent. This is a fairly common theme in young adult literature, especially books that deal with issues of substance abuse, addiction, or mental illness-a theme which Anderson handles with her usual finesse. Anderson is a master at getting the reader to put themselves in the shoes of her characters, and she handles difficult subject matter with dignity and heart. You feel empathy, rather than sympathy, for Hailey, and for her father. Anderson portrays Andy in a way that shows how mental illness affects those living with it, and those living with those living with it, in a way that is non-judgmental and non-stereotypical.

There is a ton of fodder for discussion in this novel-but there are also a ton of possible triggers for people who have experiences like those in the book. If this book is used in a classroom setting, it's important to be clear with students and parents what the topic and themes are, and to make sure that students for whom these issues are raw and emotionally challenging have support. But I wouldn't dissuade anyone from using this book in class-I think it is very important to our culture for everyone, young and old, to understand the harm that is visited on soldiers and their families when they are sent off to war.