Tuesday, February 18, 2014


A few days ago I started reading Laurie Halse Anderson's The Impossible Knife of Memory (published in 2014 by Viking). Her protagonist, Hayley, is smart and witty, and in tune with omissions and bias in the way that history is taught. At one point (chapter 23, I read it as an e-book and can't provide a page number), she's in her social studies class, where they are studying the Indian Removal Act of 1830. In his lecture, Mr. Diaz (the teacher) left out the Chickasaw people. Hayley points it out, and then says:
"Because thousands of native people died on the Trail of Tears, shouldn't we call it a 'genocide' instead of a 'forced march'?"
Her question sparks a debate in class (not included in the story itself), but I can see how Anderson's brief--yet powerful--reference to that moment in history could spark the curiosity of a reader, and I can see how a teacher who teaches the novel can use that passage to increase what students know about the Indian Removal Act. Later, Mr. Diaz asks her what she thinks about Andrew Jackson. Hayley's got other things on her mind then so doesn't engage the question, but it is posed. It is there for teachers to take up.

In chapter 41, Hayley is getting out of detention for having challenged Mr. Diaz again. Finn asks Hayley what she did. She replies:
"I just pointed out that calling it the 'Mexican-American War' falsely gives the impression that the Mexicans started it, and that in fact, in Mexico they call it the 'United States Invasion of Mexico,' which is the truth, or the 'War of 1847,' which is at least neutral-ish."
Mr. Diaz sent her to detention for disrupting his class with what he called her pedantic quibbles. When she recounts what happened to Finn, she adds that Mr. Diaz was being "an imperialist first worlder." As I read that passage, I was inspired to--literally--do a fist pump and exclaim at the beauty of the passage.

The Impossible Knife of Memory is getting lot of media attention, with good reason. Here's a paragraph from the review in The New York Times
In “The Impossible Knife of Memory,” Anderson sensitively portrays a growing, complex problem particularly relevant in the United States today: the devastating ripple effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. After five years of being home-schooled on the road with her truck-driver dad, Andy, a veteran tormented by memories of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hayley Kincain finally has a home. But instead of finding a fresh, stable start her senior year at public school, Hayley is barely getting by.

There's a depth of care in The Impossible Knife of Memory that lingers in my heart. I highly recommend it.