As Laurie Halse Anderson has made clear in interviews, this book came about because she looked down deep into her own abyss. Her father was a traumatized veteran of World War II who left for the battlefields of Europe at age 18 and came back a changed man. His Army unit had been among those that liberated Dachau. He saw things there that he could never unsee and never forget. Back home, he raised his family and served his community as a minister. He made it work until his demons outran him. He drank, and he lost his job, and he drank more. Anderson remembers both the before and the after, and in this book, she delves into her own memories, as well as into his. She wrote KNIFE because she needed to honor his courage, but in the process, she also honors her own.
Captain Andy Kincain has been a widower for 17 years, since his 20-year-old wife was killed in a car accident when their daughter Hayley was an infant. But he was also an active Armed Services member for much of that time, so Hayley was raised with devotion and stability by her paternal grandmother. But Hayley's "before" ended when she was almost seven, and her grandmother died. After that, Hayley's guardians were the team of her father and his post-traumatic stress. Andy's girlfriend Trish did a pretty admirable job serving as Hayley's mother until Andy's instability drove Trish first into drinking, and then into fleeing. So from the time Hayley was twelve, she and Andy were vagabonds, staying in one place only long enough for Andy to decompensate again and feel the need to move on. Hayley has no other relatives and no other harbors. She and Andy are locked together with unbreakable chains of love and pain, and neither of them seem to know any more which of them is the parent and which the child.
The book opens shortly after Andy has made a completely uncharacteristic and apparently selfless decision: to stop running. He and Hayley have returned to his hometown and moved into his childhood house so that Hayley can go to school, for the first time in five years. She'll attend her senior year in high school and stay until she graduates. Hayley hates this plan with every fibre of her being, but most of what she thinks of as her reasons really just mask her terror at the thought of leaving her father alone every day, unprotected. She can't allow herself to feel the terror, but due to years of parental example, she has no problem twisting it into volcanic rage. Hayley is a survivor, and her survival weapon is to attack when she feels threatened. But, having been taught about the world by her father, she is unable to differentiate actual threats from imagined ones.
Enter Finn on Page 14, and here begins my main problem with the book. I believe that I know why Anderson felt that Hayley needed to develop a romantic attachment to a boy in her class. Andy's Army flashbacks are raw, brutal, and agonizing to read about, and so are some of his behaviors. Finn is the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, the sop to make teens want to continue to the end of the book. But Finn is not a credible character. He is, instead, an idealized image, custom-made to fit Hayley's needs while expressing almost none of his own. I can accept that he's attracted to Hayley as soon as he meets her, because initial attractions are often inexplicable. But I cannot accept that he continues to cheerfully pursue her despite her continuous, withering attacks on all of his attempts to get to know her. In fact, her rebuffs are so vitriolic that Finn's continuing to blithely ignore them begins to feel masochistic and more than a little creepy. Even once Hayley and Finn are definitively in a relationship, it's very difficult to see what, if anything, is in it for him; he apparently exists for the sole purpose of serving as Hayley's lifeline. Anderson seems to recognize this, and more than halfway through the book she provides him with a traumatic family issue of his own, but its role in the story feels tacked on, not organic, and Hayley is never called on to empathize or offer guidance. If anything, the sketchiness of the story line about Finn's sister only seems to emphasize that, in this as in every other way, Finn is on his own. I know that Anderson wants the reader to believe that this Hayley-Finn love story is a healthy one, but I see it as the opposite, and that detracts from my ability to appreciate the book as a whole. And I want to be able to appreciate the book, because its language is exquisite, its lessons are important, and Hayley, Andy and Trish are stunningly real. And besides, you know how I feel about Laurie Halse Anderson.
The story of Hayley and Andy, two drowning people clinging to each other, is the story Anderson felt compelled to tell, and I believe it's a story that teen readers would feel compelled to finish, even standing alone. The only way out is through, Anderson tells us, and that message comes across loud and clear. I wish that Hayley had been allowed to come to that realization on her own.
A few nights ago I watched a PBS documentary about J.D. Salinger and was struck by a parallel between him and Anderson's father. Salinger was in his mid-20's when he marched off to World War II. Not only did he participate in D-Day, but he also participated in the liberation of a German concentration camp. He, too, returned a haunted man, and the ghosts of his past also left scars on his daughter. So in a sense, the same experience that led to the creation of Holden Caulfield also led to the creation of this book, one generation removed.