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Book Review – The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

I am sincerely afraid my review will not do justice to this book. Scratch that. I am completely certain that my review will not do justice to this book.

Hayley Kincain and her father, Andy, have quit their life on the road to return home for her senior year of high school. Their past years were spent traveling – Andy driving long haul trucks, Hayley doing home school. Sort of. Andy is determined that Hayley will spend her senior year of high school establishing a good record so she will have a chance of getting into college. Hayley isn’t sure she wants to go to college. This would be enough conflict for most YA novels, but it doesn’t even scratch the surface. Hayley and Andy are barely hanging on, both of them devastated by Andy’s post traumatic stress disorder, a result of his time spent in the military.

Throughout the story, we watch, impotent, as Haley and Andy’s lives gradually crumble. There are periods of rebuilding, attempts at healing and a fresh start, but everything inexorably falls apart. And it is devastating, though ultimately hopeful.

The thing is, I don’t remember when I first heard about post traumatic stress disorder. I do remember, however, thinking, “Oh! Well that explains a lot of things, especially the lives of all of those Vietnam veterans.” And then I basically cataloged it away as an explanation of the behavior and actions of anyone who had been through a traumatic experience. I never really stopped to consider the impact of PTSD on friends and family members. I live a relatively sheltered life; I never really stopped to consider anything at all. But this book – this book stopped me cold.

Ragged and raw and realistic, but also intimate, personal, and incredibly nuanced, Anderson’s story of one family’s struggle with PTSD is brilliant and moving.

You can learn more about PTSD by visiting the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs web site

Karen’s take:
I read this yesterday while driving cross country from Ohio to Texas.  At one point near the end, I completely just started hardcore bawling. My husband and two kids were all, “are you okay?” This was such a moving and realistic portrait of truly broken people.  Not just Hayley and her dad, but the supporting cast as well – including a great boyfriend, Finn, whose family is being torn apart by a drug addicted sister.  And then there is Gracie, a best friend whose family is falling apart.  These are the teens I know, the teens I work with.  This is their story, these are their struggles.

Hayley is trying desperately to keep very dark secrets because where she is – as terrifying as it is – is nothing compared to the unknown of being removed from her father.  She reminds me in ways of the MC in Rotters by Daniel Kraus, also trying to survive a desperate situation and keep it a secret.  Or the MC in Don’t You Dare Read This, Mr. Dunphrey.

And Hayley, she has been burned by life. Abandoned at every turn.  So being in a relationship is hard.  Here is where there is some real nuance to Anderson’s storytelling; Hayley is often an unlikable main character – she even states that she is being a bitch as she is in fact being one – but she can’t get too close or be too honest.  Her life is a tapestry loosely woven and gentling tugging even one string of truth will make it all unravel.  It is such fantastic storytelling and character development.

Also, she made me ugly cry.  It is possible that the only other author who has done that is Gayle Forman in If I Stay.  But when the things that you know must eventually happen do in fact happen, your gut is sliced open and your heart is wrenched out and damn it, you wanted to be wrong for Hayley and her dad.  

Hayley’s dad, so very, very broken.  I loved him.  This is such a beautiful portrayal of what it is to be haunted by memories, to wake up sweating in the night because the blade of memory keeps twisting, to try and self-medicate the memories and heartache away.  This is some A+ storytelling.  And such an important story because so many of our Veterans are coming home damaged, we need to do more for them.

Sunday Reflections: Imagining Others Complexly (by Robin)

I have to admit, I’ve been really discouraged lately. All of the recent events in Washington DC, with the roll out of the Affordable Care Act website and the government shutdown, with it’s corresponding misinformation and lack of information, bringing our country up to the very brink of default for no particular reason, etc., has really caused me to question the direction our country is taking. I feel like we should be…beyond this? Maybe it’s just me.

In terms of the healthcare ‘debate’, I have a difficult time understanding how people can NOT see how this will benefit everyone. Yes, it might make your insurance costs or your taxes go up (slightly). But, in the long run, it will decrease the amount we pay for healthcare because we wont be subsidizing emergency care for people who are unable to pay. If everyone has access to regular preventative care, fewer people will need to access emergency care. People in general will be healthier, productivity should go up, the amount of people who rely on disability will go down. It’s a win-win.

I feel the same way about education spending, and not just because I work in public education. I look at my own state with it’s recent cuts to education funding, especially to our once flagship More at 4 program and wonder, “Do people not see how a (relatively) small investment now will save us SO MUCH in the future?” Forget the fact that it’s the right thing to do. The simple fact that it is so much more of a drain to our economy to have an undereducated populace, in terms of financial support, lack of productivity, and expenditures on incarceration, should be enough to convince people of the importance of fully funding public education.

And then a couple of things happened. First, there was this simple exchange I had with someone I follow on Twitter:

Once I got over my initial bout of flabbergasted rage over people’s inability to understand the complexities of living in poverty, I began to really think about the problem. What is really at the root of this lack of understanding? In simple terms, it’s generally attributable to a lack of ability to imagine others complexly (a concept I first encountered through one of John Green’s Vlogbrothers videos.) It’s a failing I encounter daily, even within myself, and I make a concerted effort to do it.

Second, there was the widely reported study on the impact of reading (literary) fiction on our capacity for empathy. If you’ve missed it, I would start here with NPR’s coverage. But, you can also find information about it here, or here, or here. Choose your poison.

And what I realized was, “This is how I can make a change.” Because that’s what it really boils down to for me. When I get really discouraged about the state of our world what I really need is a way to make a change. Every time we make an impact, no matter how small, is a force for good in our world. That’s what I have to hold on to on a daily basis.

If you’re looking for a place to start, I highly recommend the novels of A.S. King and Laurie Halse Anderson. I was recently able to procure an electronic advanced reader copy of Anderson’s upcoming The Impossible Knife of Memory, and I have to say it completely blew my mind. I’ve heard, over and over, about the impact of Post Traumatic Stress on military personnel and their families, but this book made it REAL for me. In our efforts to promote literacy in our youth population, we will hopefully also impact their capacity for empathy and their ability to imagine others complexly.