The Impossible Knife of Memory
Laurie Halse Anderson
Hayley Kincain is having a hard time adjusting to her new school, which isn’t hard to understand since her and her dad, Andy, have spent the last 5 years in her father’s big rig, never settling in one place for too long. Eventually they settle down in Andy’s hometown of Belmont so Hayley can go to a normal high school and maybe even get into community college. But getting settled only makes them realize that no amount of attempted normalcy can help them leave their troubled past behind; Andy is suffering from PTSD after serving in Iraq and Hayley has flashes of buried memories she has trouble piecing together. She’s not alone in her troubles though. Her BFF Grace’s family is being torn apart by divorce, her boyfriend’s sister is a drug addict who is tearing his family apart, and to Hayley all the kids at school are “zombies” without individuality and preying off each other’s insecurities. Everything comes to a head with Hayley’s father and his inability to cope with not only his own condition but his relationships and people around him, putting himself and Hayley in danger.
There’s no denying that Laurie Halse Anderson is an excellent writer and generally accepted as reigning queen of the problem novel. However, for me there is a fine line that any author walks in teen problem novels between just enough problems to be interesting and diverse and being bombarded with problems everywhere you turn – drugs, alcohol, suicide, bullying, divorce, cutting, poverty, war. I get it; teens and their parents have problems. I’m not going to assume my own high school experience is representative of the norm because I know it wasn’t typical. I went to an upper-middle-class public school full of Mormons who formed groups like the Virgin Lips Club to help each other resist the temptation to kiss people (I can’t make this stuff up). But when a book has 5 main characters – adults and teens – and all of them have multiple problems of this sort all within the time frame of the book, I can’t help but get pulled out of story to ask myself if this level and sheer variety of messed up is even believable.
I do have to hand it to LHA that she doesn’t make everyone suffer for their shortcomings and she certainly doesn’t preach. Her characters can smoke weed or party in a quarry or pop pills they found in their mother’s medicine cabinet and no one has to die or end up in juvie or drop out of high school. Because sometimes teens do reckless things and a lot of the time it turns out fine. Despite all the many problems flying around in this book, the focus and the consequences of actions remain on Hayley, which is where they belong. I also appreciate that this book addresses the rampant PTSD and other mental health afflictions that affect so many veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I’m glad a high profile and capable YA author is choosing to shed a light on this problem.
Last note: Hayley has blue hair in this book, which is awesome, and her boyfriend, Finn, calls her Miss Blue, which is adorable.
TL;DR – These teens have problems, like, a LOT of problems. LHA is a great writer who few too many problems in this one, but I’m glad she is addressing and acknowledging veteran PTSD.