Laurie Halse Anderson
First off, you’ve probably heard of Speak. It is one of those books I felt remiss in not having read thus far. I’ve read at least one other book by Laurie Halse Anderson but so far she is definitely most well known for this work. Melinda is starting off her high school–literally, the book starts off on her first day of school. The reader is aware right off the bat that something is not right–Melinda has been ostracized by what seems to be the entire school. The full story is related in bits and pieces throughout the book; Melinda is raped by a classmate at a summer party which was being held at the home of one of their peers. In the aftermath of the rape, Melinda calls the cops but becomes frightened when they arrive at the party and flees without reporting the rape. So while everyone discovers that Melinda is the one that called the police, no one knows the true reason she did so.
Melinda spends her freshman year as an outcast. She takes over an abandoned janitor’s closet and uses it as a hideaway. She has no one to confide in or find comfort with; her friends have all turned against her and her parents are work-a-holics. Melinda’s issues become obvious as she literally refuses to speak. Her parents and teachers can’t seem to figure out what is wrong–they show concern but have a tough time deciphering Melinda’s emotions.
The one outlet Melinda has throughout the book is her art class. Many times she is able to open up to herself in a way that doesn’t involve speaking, so that her art project becomes cathartic to her. Mr Freeman, the art teacher, also seems to become someone whose insight Melinda trusts, even if they don’t necesarily form any kind of personal relationship. At one point, Mr Freeman gives Melinda a ride after coming upon her walking in the rain. During the car ride, he says to her:
Art without emotion is like chocolate cake without sugar. It makes you gag . . . The next time you work on your trees, don’t think about trees. Think about love, or hate, or joy, or rage–whatever makes you feel something, makes your palms sweat or your toes curl. Focus on that feeling. When people don’t express themselves, they die one piece at a time. You’d be shocked at how many adults are really dead inside–walking through their days without any idea who they are, just waiting for a heart attack or cancer or a Mack truck to come along and finish the job. It’s the saddest thing I know.
By far that passage stuck with me the most out of the entire book. It felt like Anderson really struck gold in that paragraph, and to me it really summed up Melinda’s situation; either she could try to put the pieces back together and move on with her life by accepting the rape and the emotions that came along because of it, or she could numb herself to the world and, as a result, neglect to live her life fully.
I am not sure I liked the style of the the book. Normally I am not put off by choppy, disjointed writing styles, but for some reason Speak threw me off. In theory, it seems like the perfect way of writing this type of story, but in some ways it made it hard for me to relate to Melina and to understand where she was coming from. I had a hard time connecting with her and that is where the story fell flat for me. Maybe this issue had nothing to do with the style of the story, but in my mind the two are correlated.
Overall, I thought Speak was a worthwhile read; it tackled a heavy subject in a way that was relateable and readable. I think there were a few kinks that could have been worked out to make the book stronger, but the overall style of the book does not detract from its powerful message.
I read this book as a part of the Women Unbound challenge. More information on this challenge can be found here.