Laurie Halse Anderson has made a name for herself by writing young adult fiction that tackles difficult topics like rape and eating disorders, to name just a few. Her no-punches-pulled explorations of tough issues have prompted various classroom bans and challenges, which–as challenges usually do–have only increased her popularity, not just among her target audience, but among adults who read YA fiction. Both sets of readers will find the same issue-driven, unflinching prose in Anderson’s latest novel, The Impossible Knife of Memory; what remains to be seen, however, is how her detractors will respond to her theme, which happens to be combat-related PTSD and its effects on not just veterans, but on their families.
Since 2001, over 300,000 veterans have been treated for PTSD at an official VA facility. A 2008 Rand report indicates that many more cases go unreported and/or untreated, due to either fear of stigma or access to adequate medical care, with a resulting cost to the U.S. of $6.2 billion. The Impossible Knife of Memory asks the reader to imagine the stories behind the data with one representative portrait of a father and daughter trying to escape their troubled past.
Andy and Hayley Kincain have just moved back to Andy’s hometown after five years of truck driving and homeschooling on the road. This is supposedly to give Hayley some semblance of a normal life, but the bored, bright teenager is not fitting in well with high school and its comparatively restrictive rules. Of course, it’s hard to concentrate in school when you’re constantly worrying about what’s going on at home, and whether you’ll be seeing normal dad, depressed dad, blackout dad, or flashback dad in any given moment. But Hayley’s just fine, thank you, and she doesn’t need teachers, guidance counselors, friends, or cute boys to help her deal. And yet, they keep trying anyway, much to Hayley’s exasperation.
Told mostly from Hayley’s point of view, but interwoven with haunting images from Andy’s trauma, Anderson has given us a well-crafted portrait of what happens when coping mechanisms no longer work, and things fall apart. The story’s greatest strength, however, is in showing how wounded people can become strong again without losing their dignity or compromising their essential selves, a long, slow process that Anderson skillfully spins out over a series of short, intense chapters. As a result, Hayley and Andy are initially hard to like, but worth getting to know, not only for themselves, but for the untold stories they represent.
“Problem novels” aren’t exactly fun to read, but they are important. They shine light on aspects of the human condition some people would rather keep in the dark. Considering the sacrifices so many men and women have made for their country, I’m grateful to Anderson for making this issue the latest focus of her clear-eyed literary spotlight.
with gratitude to all who have served