The Impossible Knife of Memory started out to be a book I read for other reasons. I wasn’t planning to discuss it here as a leadership book.
Background: The book is the latest work of young-adult fiction by Laurie Halse Anderson. I respect her writing ability and her leadership in the world of children’s literature. I try to read whatever she writes. Prior the publication of her first book, Ndito Runs, a children’s picture book in 1996, I had a chance to meet her. I was interested in writing children’s literature at that time. Ms. Anderson represents an example of what is possible when a person stays focused on a vision over a long period of time. She stayed focused on improving her ability to write and it paid off for her and her readers.
A Powerful Read: When I finished The Impossible Knife of Memory I could not stop thinking about it. That surprised me because I wanted to quit reading it many times along the way. Not because it wasn’t good, but because it was heartbreaking to read. Hayley Kincaid is a senior in high school who has to care for her father Andy as he deals with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms.
I found the story to be an honest telling of family life after the tragedy of war, loss, and the stress that is placed on families as they try to put themselves back together. As it unfolds, the story continues to surface new pain in every chapter. Like real life, there are not instant and quick-fix answers.
Connection to the Leadership Process: So how does this story relate to the leadership process? Most of us can see possibilities for something better. Both Hayley and Andy see the possibility of a traditional home life. To get the process going, they start by returning to Andy’s home town. Hayley is enrolled in school and Andy takes a job, but the reality of his traumatic brain injury (TBI) and unwanted behaviors surface to derail their best intentions. They did what they could to make the reality come to life, but they were at a loss on how to end the memories that kept returning and causing additional complications.
After I finished the book, I was haunted by the part where Andy has enough courage to go to Hayley’s school on Veteran’s Day. Since the book is written in first person with Hayley telling the story, this description is in her words:
A soldier stepped into the cold sunshine, an army captain in full-dress uniform: polished black boots, regulation-creased pants, blindingly white shirt, and black tie under a blue wool jacket decorated with captain’s bars, Ranger tab on his left shoulder, Purple Heart, Bronze Star, oak leaf clusters, and the fruit salad of ribbons and hardware that meant he had led troops into battle and tried his best to bring them all home.
The picture painted by this description is a strong portrayal of how we want to see our war heroes. Perhaps, we even use Veteran’s Day as our token day to think about people who have served our country. As a person who has no family history of this kind of trauma, the book compelled me to dig a bit deeper into the issue of TBI and PTSD.
Call to Action: As leaders we can lead without compassion, but that is a shallow kind of leadership, one that fails to achieve the true potential of leadership. Being aware of the impact that the prolonged war is having our families is important. Instead of ignoring the issues presented in The Impossible Knife of Memory, we can learn more and guide those we lead to find the support they need to begin the healing process.
Every week during 2014 I look forward to sharing books that I am reading. The lens of the leadership process will be the filter for which I recommend books. Books are powerful vehicles for providing us with inspiration and new ideas.