Healing The Wounds Of Memory's
'Impossible Knife'





Hayley Kincain is 15 years old and on the run with her father, Andy. He's come home from the war in Iraq, honored for his service, and haunted by it. He drinks and does drugs, can't hold a job, is unreliable behind the wheel of his 18-wheeler, and often seems to be the real adolescent in the family. Father and daughter try to stop running by moving back to Andy's hometown in upstate New York, but the war still goes on inside of him and threatens to make Hayley one more casualty.

"The Impossible Knife of Memory" is Laurie Halse Anderson's newest novel for young readers. Laurie Halse Anderson is one of the best-known writers of literature for young adults and children in the world, including the celebrated book "Speak," and a trilogy on the American Revolution that begins with the books "Chains" and "Forge."

She has twice been nominated for the National Book Award, and joins us now from our member station KUOW in Seattle. Thanks so much for being with us.

LAURIE HALSE ANDERSON: Thank you so much for inviting me.

SIMON: You say this book is personal. How so?

ANDERSON: This book is personal for two reasons. I started thinking about it when my nephew came home from his tours of Iraq and Afghanistan, and I watched his struggles to kind of reorient himself and slip back into life. And it brought back a lot of memories from own experience with my father, who was a World War II vet. His troops were sent to Dachau shortly after the concentration camp was opened in 1945, when my dad was 18. And what he saw and experienced there continues to haunt him. When I was a teenager, those memories and ghosts took over my family's lives for many years, and created a lot of heartbreak.

SIMON: Can you talk about that?

ANDERSON: Well, I had a lovely, wonderful childhood. My father was a college chaplain at Syracuse University. We had a lot of college students in our house, which is always fun when you're a little kid. And our life seemed to me - at that point - fantastic. I mean, it was joy and love, and lots of laughter. But my dad became more serious and began drinking, as, I think, the pressures of his job mounted.

Also, there was a lot of Vietnam War protest. So the concept of war and death was very much in our lives. And then, just as I was going into seventh grade, Dad lost his job as a minister because of his own issues - his drinking, and other problems. It felt like we were being kicked out of Eden. My dad didn't work for several years, and this man who I've revered and loved so much became a stranger. He was with us physically, but he wasn't with us emotionally.

And I think the worst part was - is that we couldn't talk about what was happening. We didn't discuss things like that in our family. And I was very confused. I was angry, and I was scared. You know, I was frequently thinking that he was going to be dead when I got home from school.

SIMON: Yeah. So how much does this blue-haired, whip-smart handful who is Hayley Kincain resemble Laurie Halse Anderson?

ANDERSON: Well, I don't have blue hair. And whip-smart is probably up for discussion. But I think she is what I wish I had been. She's much braver than I was, as a kid - and tougher, too. You know, she confronts her dad in a way I never had the courage to.

SIMON: When you write from inside the skin of a teenager, how do you keep your impressions fresh?

ANDERSON: People who knew me back in the day say that I haven't changed much since I was 15. If I have a secret weapon, I think that might be what it is. I have this theory that adolescence is a repeated experience. You go through a second adolescence - sadly, I think - when you hit your middle age. You know, and then your kids leave home, and then there's these giant rounds of transition in our lives. You know, you find you're sort of experiencing the same kinds of things; concerns about your body and your place, and your identity in the world.

SIMON: Can Hayley understand her father and - I don't mind saying - the hell he's seen in war any more than he can understand the daughter who is this teenage girl, and the hell she's seen in him?

ANDERSON: Wow. That's a wonderful question. I think that's sort of the path that they're trying so hard to walk down together, you know. The memories that have trapped her father have also trapped Hayley, and I think this is something that vets struggle with mightily - 'cause not only do they have their own pain that they're processing, but they love their children; and to see their pain infecting their kids is devastating. I don't think, you know, Hayley doesn't have the maturity to fully understand what her father is experiencing, which is why she gets angry at him, and why she's disappointed. But her painful memories are the good ones. She remembers that dad who loved her and could take care of her. And sometimes, it hurts to look back on the good days when the days that they're in right now are so bleak.

SIMON: Do you feel that kind of support wasn't there for your father?

ANDERSON: No. It didn't exist. It didn't exist at all. We didn't even - I don't even think the phrase post-traumatic stress disorder had been discussed. It certainly wasn't discussed when he came home from World War II. I think we began to talk about it when the Vietnam soldiers began to come home. But, you know, that greatest generation, they were supposed to come home and put those memories in their footlocker and get on with life. And they tried; they really did try. But there's an awful lot of them who were broken.

SIMON: You recently helped your father get resettled into a home.


SIMON: What's his life like now? What's he like?

ANDERSON: It's interesting. He's a little disoriented. He's a very independent man. We moved our parents back up north about 10 years ago because they had gotten to the point where they needed some help. And caring for my dad - my mom passed away in 2009 - has been a remarkable experience, really lovely. And all my old frustrations with him are gone. They just faded away. And seeing that even today, you know, at 86, he's still struggling with his memories of his war experience is pretty profound. His memory is fading; he's beginning to have some dementia. And it's interesting because I got him a book the other day about the P-51 bombers that he used to work on - he was also a mechanic - and when he was paging through the pictures of the young men working on the planes, he became very emotional. Those months and years when he was 18, 19, 20 are more vivid in his mind than pretty much any experience he's had since.

SIMON: Laurie Halse Anderson - her new novel, "The Impossible Knife of Memory." Thanks so much for being with us.

ANDERSON: Oh, this has been really fun. Thank you very much.

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