I come from the post-World War II generation. My father and two uncles were in the war but they never talked about it. I have photos of my dad in uniform looking so distinguished and photos of him stepping off an airplane or in an office, all smiling. I think my uncles had it worse than my father, combat-wise. But they never talked about it. Looking at the photos, you’d think it was sleep away camp.
Talking to the WW II veterans at our library for our Oral History Project, they all have stories, some happy, some sad, but they all talk about it and smile. There is a far away look in their eyes sometimes. But, by and large, it seems that the memories are fond ones.
But looking at old newsreels and documentaries we know it wasn’t a pleasure trip our soldiers took. Now compare the means we used to wreak devastation in that war with all the new, more effective, more ghastly means we have now and it’s no wonder that our soldiers suffer post-traumatic stress disorders when they return home.
That’s what Laurie Halse Anderson addresses so well in The Impossible Knife of Memory. Seventeen year old Hayley’s father, Andy, served in both Iraq and Afghanistan and came home a shadow of his former self. For a while he drove a big rig with Hayley in the passenger seat. But he spontaneously decided to return to his boyhood home so that Hayley can finish high school like a normal kid. Unfortunately with a tormented father and no mother, her life was anything but normal. Being on the road and home-schooled, she didn’t know the rules of high school nor of boy-girl relationships. Add to that the uncertainty: will her father wake up, will he be sober and sane or tormented and drunk? Must she walk on eggshells?
Then enter Trish, Hayley’s surrogate parent for a while whose relationship with Andy was troubled and who walked out on them. Do Hayley or Andy need this?
As with Speak and Wintergirls, Anderson wonderfully, readably, delves into a difficult, relevant, contemporary topic. The characters come alive. You are in Hayley’s living room after Andy’s trashed it because he learned an Army buddy was killed in action. You are there, on the edge along with Andy. There are few books that, as you read, you feel that you are alongside the main character and this is one. The Impossible Knife of Memory will stay in your memory for a long time.
Read the New York Times Book Review write-up by Jo Knowles: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/12/books/review/laurie-halse-andersons-impossible-knife-of-memory.html?_r=0