The Impossible Knife of Memory

Front CoverThe Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated, 2014

ISBN 0670012092, 9780670012091

Plot Summary

Hayley Kincaid wants what every high school girl wants: love, friendship and a stable home. Reality for Hayley is very different and it takes every ounce of energy for her just to keep her head above water. After 5 years of running free with her father in his long-haul truck and being home-schooled, Hayley winds up surrounded by “zombies” and “freaks” at her new high school and there is no where to fit in, and no where to hide.

But hide is what Hayley tries to do: she tries to hide her father’s drinking binges and mental instability, she hides her own sadness and insecurities, never letting anyone get close, and she hides her greatest qualities, even from herself. Living from day to day, checking her dad’s truck after school to see if he’s even been out of the house, Hayley lives to survive hoping her father will be able to pull himself up from the pot and booze that have become his PTSD medication.

Hayley’s friend Gracie knows she is struggling to maintain a grip on her life, but Gracie has her own family problems and cannot offer Hayley the support she needs. Then she meets Finn, the most unlikely friend she could have in her school and even though she refuses to let him get too close, he is relentless in a very quiet way. When Hayley learns Finn has family secrets of his own and a sister who taught him a few things about addiction, she realizes maybe he could really understand how she feels.

When her father’s former girlfriend Trish, a recovering alcoholic, returns to try to help bring Hayley’s dad back from the brink and save their family, Hayley must decide if she can trust an outsider that completely again and risk being disappointed and hurt by abandonment one more time on the off chance she could have her father back and some kind of normal life.

Critical Evaluation

This story is deep and rich, with real characters struggling to find real solutions to some very basic yet painful realities. Addiction, alcoholism, divorce, war, death, and the effects of PTSD on a man and his family are all woven together in this book to bring some very painful realities into the light. Written with her usual wry and wit, Laurie Halse Anderson gives her characters just enough sarcasm and levity to allow them to see the tragedies in their daily lives but still find some glimmer of humanity and humor to give the hope.

Hayley’s voice and thoughts are the primary focus of this book, but her father Andy has some of his own chapters and it is in these that the novel peers into the heart and mind of a damaged man. Hayley confronts her fears and tries to find a way to hold her world together and as usual our author offers a path to hope and recovery by giving Hayley a way to trust those around her who want her world to stay intact as well. By giving voice to struggling characters whose stories keep them in the shadows, Anderson gives that voice to every teen who reads this book – and her others. The message: reach out, there is help. You are not alone.

Reader’s Annotation

It’s Hayley’s senior year of high school and after 5 years on the road with her dad, who drinks too much and self-medicates to erase the horrors of his deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, you would think she would be excited and happy to have a normal year. But for Hayley, the unfamiliar faces of the “freaks” and “zombies” on campus alien to her and with her father either screaming and throwing things or passed out on the couch most days, her life is anything but normal.

Information about the Author

Laurie Halse Anderson has written with and grit and honesty, shining a light on such controversial topics as rape, eating disorders, suicide and addiction. She has also helped set the bar for strong, ground-breaking realism in contemporary young adult literature. Anderson writes the difficult and at times ugly truth, igniting debate and forcing dialog about the real issues teenagers face every day. Sometimes these situations are very adult in nature and difficult for critics to accept as teenage realities. For this reason, she is exactly what some teenagers look for on the library shelf.

Genre: Fiction

Awards: 2014 National Book Awards Longlist for Young People’s Literature; SLJ Best Books 2014, Young Adult; Top 20 Editors’ picks 2014, Teen & Young Adult; PW’s Best Books of 2014, Young Adult

Content Area: Family › Parents;  Historical / Military & Wars;  Love & Romance; Social Issues / Depression & Mental Illness; PTSD

Booktalk Ideas


Text Measures/Reading Level:

Quantitative: Lexile Measure®HL720

Interest Level: Grades 9 – 12

Reading Level : 4.7


Alcoholism and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are both pivotal elements in this story. Hayley’s father is violent at times, shooting a TV in a hotel and getting into fights in bars, but generally the violence is illustrated as part of his illness and could be used to facilitate discussions about alcoholism, substance abuse, and recovery. The military traumas depicted as  vivid but essential to understanding the torment of Hayley’s father.

Always check the American Library Association website for strategies and tips in handling challenges to library materials at

Additional/Digital Content:

Author Website:

Why This Book?

Because I love Laurie Halse Anderson’s writing style, her choice of protagonists and plots. I like every book I have read from her and I was excited about this new one in 2014. PTSD touches many lives and I wanted to see what Laurie could bring out of it for teen readers to take away. She never disappoints.


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