Ways to know you’ve made it:
1. For musicians, Weird Al Yankovic parodies your song.
2. For performers of various sorts, you’re invited to be on Sesame Street.
3. For writers, your book gets banned/challenged/removed from shelves.
Laurie Halse Anderson, then, has made it. Her novel, Speak, which deals with date rape and PTSD, was met with extensive acclaim, was added almost immediately to classroom reading lists, and joined the ranks of the Banned and Challenged books just as quickly. Her books, Twisted (the sexuality! the law-breaking! the alcohol use!) and Wintergirls (apparently talking about how eating disorders can screw up your life is the same as “providing tips” on how to become anorexic) have also been challenged. And now, because someone has to write the books that will give people a way to talk about big complicated scary topics and she’s established herself as just the person for the job, Anderson has brought us The Impossible Knife of Memory.
Impossible Knife is the story of Hayley Kincain, a high-schooler whose family life is anything but average. Her mother died when she was very small, and her father, a decorated veteran who served in Iraq, has severe PTSD. They lived for a while as over-the-road long-haul truckers with Andy, the father, homeschooling Hayley during their trips; but he’s lost that job, and they’ve returned to his childhood hometown to settle down and let Hayley finish her education at a traditional public school.
The problem, of course, is the PTSD. Andy struggles with flashbacks and an inability to hold down a job, plus he self-medicates with alcohol and the occasional illegal drugs. He periodically blacks out, or withdraws into himself for hours or days at a time. And so Hayley is left to be the parent in the household…and to deal with her trust issues, the transition to formal schooling, keeping them both fed, her father’s flare-ups or shut-downs, and (heaven help her) a boy who’s interested in her, all on her own.
I’m not gonna lie: this is not a fun book. Anderson’s books don’t tend to be. They are not a delightful romp, they are not heartwarming and uplifting, they are not the feel-good books of the decade.
But they are important books. They’re books that open a dialogue, books that give vocabulary to complicated issues. They force us to sit with the ugly and uncomfortable parts of the human experience, and force us to acknowledge that not everybody has the “gets a car at your sweet 16, goes to prom with the cute crush, jaunts off to college where wacky misadventures ensue” story.
They force us to understand that some people have a really, really hard row to hoe, and provide a context in which we can talk about some of those big scary topics and issues that you can’t just, y’know, casually introduce. “So…who here has a parent who’s not the Disney ideal? Anybody? Show of hands, guys.”
Not everyone will relate to these books, for which I am profoundly grateful. (I saw one Norwegian reviewer give Impossible Knife a low rating because surely no student–even a profoundly private one like Hayley–would have such a difficult home situation without anyone doing anything about it, and my first thought was “oh, honeychild, god bless you for your absolute lack of understanding of how life in America works”.) But I think it’s critical that folks like Anderson have the courage to keep writing books like Impossible Knife because there will always be someone out there who does relate to it. It is my hope that a student will run across Anderson’s various titles in the library or their classroom, read them, and go see someone–a counselor, a trusted teacher, anyone at all–and say “I know exactly where this character is coming from, and I don’t know what to do about that”.
And it is my hope that adults will continue to read Anderson’s books, and continue to teach them in English classes, and continue to open conversations about the hard topics they introduce. Not because they’re enjoyable, by any stretch of the imagination, but because they’re important. They’re necessary. They’re relevant.
And because they keep getting banned and/or challenged, and to my mind, that’s one of the surest signs that an author is worth note.
TL;DR: Dealing with PTSD in the same way that Speak dealt with rape and Wintergirls dealt with eating disorders, The Impossible Knife of Memory is another important, necessary, thought-provoking, and conversation-opening book from Laurie Halse Anderson. When I’m President of the World, copies of all Anderson’s books will be issued to all citizens and we’ll have a LHA Day once a year when we can all sit and engage in dialogue about them; but until that time, people keep banning and challenging her work, and I’m sure it’s just a matter of time until this one joins that list. Go read it now, while it’s still available on most library shelves.
Rating: 9/10 Muddy Hoofprints. It will almost always be the case that Anderson’s books will get 9/10 Muddy Hoofprints from me, because I really, really, really want y’all to read them. All of them. Even the ones that don’t get banned. Her novels are exhaustively researched, deeply insightful, and profoundly important. Fun? Not so much. But absolutely worth reading nonetheless.