"Having to parent your mother or father is a challenge that way too many teens have to deal with. Teens whose parents are dealing with substance abuse, financial hardship, job loss, mental illness and divorce deserve our love, support, and compassion. I wish America would stop judging and criticizing teens and instead, try to understand the battles they have to fight every day." - Laurie Halse Anderson
Maybe after being out of the high school world and not being surrounded by teenagers all day makes me think that Laurie Halse Anderson's latest YA move, "The Impossible Knife of Memory" teeters on the edge of too angsty. The premise behind the book proves both thought provoking and important as Anderson probes a subject that many don't discuss PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) in war veterans. As Anderson says in the above quote, teenagers do deal with so much and adults need to recognize this fact that many of them deal with too much. Too much misery and pain, though, clouds the relationships and characters in Anderson's latest YA novel.
The two main characters, Hayley Kincain and her father, Andy, decided to settle down in Andy's late mother's home after Hayley spent five years with her dad while he worked as a truck driver. The life on the road seemed to suit Hayley and Andy just fine as they drove away from problems and memories, but Andy, in an uncharacteristic thought as a responsible dad, thinks Hayley will fair better in a more traditional school system. Returning to a "normal" life creates abnormalities for both Andy and Hayley who both refuse to face the demons of their past and therefore have issues in their present situations. Hayley needs to learn how to be a high school student, how to get along with the other students that she calls "zombies" and how to figure out how to deal with teachers who all seem a bit on the mean side.
Andy, on the other hand, needs to fight through each day as his PTSD threaten to destroy his life. With flashes from his war experience peppered throughout the book in italicized chapters, the reader gets a brief peek at the horrors of Andy's battles that still rage in his head and lead him to bouts of anger, madness, and into the clutches of drugs and alcohol.
It isn't only Andy who suffers. His ex-wife suffered, and ended up leaving him and her step-daughter Hayley (even though she loved them), and Hayley needs to learn how to be a responsible adult and basically tip-toe around her father's explosive behavior and bouts of depression.
At school Hayley meets a friend and a sorta kinda boyfriend, Finn, whose charming demeanor and quick wit make him different from the rest of the zombies at the school.
All the elements of a classic YA novel, Laurie Halse Anderson style, are there. Loner girl. Cute and charismatic boy. Problems at home. Issues waiting to erupt. Secrets kept and incubating in the dark recesses of the characters' minds. But . . . the lack of likability of these characters made my enjoyment of their tales of survival feel a bit lukewarm at best. Hayley has a shroud of misery and "don't touch me" around her which is understandable given her home situation with her father. She has emotional flare ups, bouts of depression, an air of discontent and superiority about her, an inability to change or care about growth, and an addiction to being a bit mean and snarky.
Finn, who at first seems sweet, does "creepy" boyfriend things like giving Hayley the silent treatment, telling lies about their first date (which is a set up at the football game that he told her she was supposed to cover for the school newspaper. It turns out he tricked her into a date complete with a picnic blanket on a hill and flowers). I guess his first date trick could be seen as sweet, but I thought is was creepy. Neither Finn nor Hayley tell each other many truths and they spend a disproportionate amount of time making out.
As I write this, I just wonder if I am that out of touch with teenagers. They aren't all angst-filled, trouble at home sorts. Most of my students in the past 15 years dealt with something, but out of the 4 main teenagers in the book, 3 of them were dealing with MAJOR issues at home. Hayley's best friend falls apart because her parent's marriage was crumbling complete with affairs and shouting and an impending divorce. Finn, who seems trouble free in the beginning, divulges the truth about his sister whose drug issues bleed his family dry of money and trust.
I know that teens deal with so much. I know that many of them have a disproportionate amount of issues to deal with at home and school from boyfriend and girlfriend issues to parents and abuse and so many things that they should never need to deal with at their age. Anderson does a good job of incorporating these teen, real world issues into her books (in her novel "Speak," for instance, she tackled the issue of date rape and in "Wintergirls" she went into the dark realm of eating disorders and created a haunting narrative of best friends who were willing to die in order to be their ideal thin). This book just felt flat in terms of the characters who all became a one dimensional ball of sadness. There is just too much sad, too much misery. Not like I need puppies and rainbows to make a story happy . . . I actually prefer the sad story lines, but the blackness in this one just overtook the entire storyline. I actually got a little depressed as I read Hayley's bleak life with her dad, and her relationship troubles with Finn. There was just so much brokenness that even in the very rushed ending which was tied up with a pretty little bow at the end, I didn't feel tied to these characters.
Teenagers do deal with more today than they should, and I appreciate that Laurie Halse Anderson and many YA writers shed light on issues that aren't always talked about but are present and ripping the seams apart of kids and their parents. "The Impossible Knife of Memory" showed the storyline of Hayley and her dad with compassion and energy; their story line was enough, but the addition of too much extra teen angst and misery made the whole book feel less like reality and more like misery.