Hey, guys. I’m Sadako from Dibbly Fresh and I’ll be guest posting for Nikki today.
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson is the story of a girl named Melinda. Melinda’s a high school freshman who gets through each day saying as little as possible. She has few friends and barely any interaction with her teachers, parents, or classmates. Why? Something bad happened to Melinda the summer before school started. She went to a party with some of her friends. Melinda ended up calling the police and now the entire school and her former best friends hate her. Speak is the process of Melinda learning to admit what actually happened to her–and trying to regain her voice.
* Melinda’s parents aren’t exactly in the running for parents of the year. Melinda’s in a pretty deep depression and shows several signs of it. She starts cutting herself with a paper clip and her mother sees the scars, but reacts by letting Melinda know that she really doesn’t have the time or inclination to deal with it. Melinda licks envelopes at her father’s office one day and accidentally cuts her tongue pretty badly but doesn’t do anything about it. Dad’s reaction? To yell at her for getting blood everywhere. Speak is a pretty poignant example of what it’s like to undergo a deeply painful experience with little to no support from the people who should be there for you most.
* At the same time, Speak does make the parental roles fairly realistic. Her parents aren’t just portrayed as mean, cruel tyrants. Though they’re yelling at a girl who’s going through a terrible time, it’s made clear that they’re both very busy people who are confused: they have no idea why their daughter has undergone this transformation from good student and happy child to a silent and angry underachiever. They also try to reach out to her in small ways: they notice her artwork and buy her a pad and some supplies.
* [Here be spoilers]: Later on in the book, Anderson reveals what really happened to Melinda. When talking about this book in general, I try not to give away what happened. Though many readers probably guess and it’s a fairly well known fact about it, I do try to avoid it when discussing it among people who haven’t yet read the book, partly because it’s a spoiler but also because Speak is Melinda’s story. Part of what makes the book so powerful is Melinda slowly regaining her voice and being able to tell us, and the people around us, what’s going on inside her. For those of you who have read it, Melinda is raped by an upper class boy at the party. She has to deal with seeing that boy, Andy Evans, at school, yet doesn’t feel comfortable telling anyone what happened to her. It’s a scenario that many don’t recognize as rape (people often assume that rape is simply a stranger with a knife grabbing a woman), and unfortunately, it happens all too often, making Speak a good example of what rape really is for thousands of women and girls.
* [Spoiler free.] Melinda has several teachers and most of them really don’t understand what she’s going through. Mr. Freeman, the art teacher, who is dismissed by the administration as a hippie weirdo, however, does understand. Though he’s fairly hands off and doesn’t push her to talk, he lets her know he’s there, and encourages her with her artwork. One of my favorite moments in the book is when Melinda takes the turkey bones from her family’s Thanksgiving dinner and arranges them in an art project along with a Barbie doll head whose mouth is taped over and a knife and fork. Like the book, it’s haunting yet meaningful. Most important is Mr. Freeman’s reaction: though he notes the book is full of pain, he doesn’t push Melinda to talk until she’s ready.
* Melinda’s history teacher on the other hand (whom she nicknames Mr. Neck) is a textbook example of how NOT to teach. He shuts down debates when people express opinions he disagrees with and has no idea how to deal with Melinda. She does poorly in all her subjects except for art, and when she tries to do extra credit project in the form of a paper about the suffragette movement, Mr. Neck decides to make the project an oral report. Forced to speak against her will, Melinda decides not to present the report. Faced with this kind of support from the faculty, is it any wonder Melinda’s having a hard time finding her voice?
* Anderson also has some really insightful points to make on the nature of friendship. Melinda has few friends at the beginning of the novel. She has one friend, Heather, a new girl from Ohio who abuses her friendship and eventually dumps her for a cooler group. Melinda does eventually reconnect with some of her old best friends. One of them, Ivy, for example, is with Melinda in the bathroom when she writes the name ANDY EVANS on the wall (under the heading of Boys to Watch Out For). Ivy’s also the one who tells Melinda when other girls have been adding to it. It’s clear that though Melinda spends a lot of time with Heather, she has no real genuine connection with her. And though through most of the book, Melinda feels genuinely disconnected from the happy, excited students around her, in this one moment–knowing that she has something in common with these nameless other girls and that she has Ivy as a friend–Melinda starts to feel triumph: something she hasn’t had for the same time.
* Melinda’s reaction to what happened to her is a really good illustration of PTSD and of depression in general. Though not everyone may be able to personally relate to the experience she went through, that general feeling of suffering is one that many probably can empathize with. Melinda takes off from school fairly often because she needs a break. At school she takes over one of the janitor’s closets and makes it a home away from home for herself. And at home, she describes how sometimes she’ll get into bed and “nap” without actually sleeping. Essentially, she’s trying to stay in her own world as much as possible, minimizing her interaction with the rest of the world. Again, Laurie Halse Anderson’s depiction of the depressed and traumatized mindset is very insightful.
* Melinda’s closet was another thing that really struck me while reading Speak. Even while her parents and teachers are bemoaning her ability to be productive in a socially circumscribed way, Melinda is still creating and influencing the world. She decorates her closet with posters, she draws for art class, and she manages to put her stamp on the world, even in a tiny way. Even though Melinda was a depressing character to get to know, at the same time, it was obvious that she wasn’t just a sad, quiet girl: even as a character who spoke and seemed to do little, it was clear that when she wasn’t being pushed or prodded by parents and teachers, she was capable of a lot.
* I think what I loved most about this book was the language. Even though countless authors have written on the high school experience, Laurie Halse Anderson shows how it can be harrowing, without making resorting to cliches. Her description of Melinda’s first day at school at an assembly is one of my all time favorite passages in Speak or in any YA book. When you feel like an outcast, you don’t just feel different–you feel like a wounded animal, as though what sets you apart is so palpable as to be visible. I’m going to end this blog post with the passage in question:
I stand in the center aisle of the auditorium, a wounded zebra in a National Geographic special, looking for someone, anyone, to sit next to. A predator approaches: gray jock buzz cut, whistle around a neck thicker than a head. Probably a social studies teacher hired to coach a blood sport.
I grab a seat. Another wounded zebra turns and smiles at me. She’s packing at least five grand worth of orthodontia but has great shoes. “I’m Heather from Ohio,” she says. “I’m new here. Are you?” I don’t have time to answer. The lights dim and the indoctrination begins.