I sat down and read Speak in a single day. A quick novel at around 50,000 words, it is also a compelling one. Laurie Halse Anderson works with an interesting premise when she writes a book about a girl who does not want to speak. As an author, that presents challenges because it limits the use of dialogue. Anderson does an excellent job creating a teen protagonist who, while mostly mute, provides the reader with a powerful story.
Melinda attends Merryweather High School. It’s the typical school with the typical cliques, but she starts in September friendless. During the summer before her freshman year, she derailed the final summer fling by calling 911. The question left unanswered at the start of the novel — Why? Readers slowly learn about how Melinda was raped at the party by “Andy Beast” an upperclassman who still attends Merryweather and views his actions as normal. Just when she begins to pull her life together through art class, a caring teacher, and a new love of gardening, Andy makes his return and Melinda needs to find her voice.
The story and Melinda’s journey are compelling. The author addresses Melinda’s muteness well. Anderson’s use of descriptive prose is a lesson in show don’t tell. From the get go, the reader is immersed in the scene. “The school bus wheezes to my corner. The door opens and I step up. The driver pulls away from the curb while I stand in the aisle. Where to sit? I’ve never been a back seat wastecase…This is what I’ve been dreading. As we leave the last stop, I am the only person sitting alone…The driver downshifts to drag us over the hills” (3). Anderson’s use of description helps the reader envision Melinda’s life clearly as well as differentiate her inner and outer conflicts.
From bus rides to teacher such as Mr. Neck to Hairwoman to her friend’s house and her home life, the descriptions take us into Melinda’s world. But the author goes further than just describing the scene. Description is coupled with the main character’s inner monologue and readers quickly get a clear sense of Melinda as a struggling teen even though she says little. This combination of descriptive prose and perceptive inner monologue gives the reader a clear view of not only Melinda’s world but the challenges she faces in that life.
Teachers and students, while secondary characters, are also part of the larger school, and the school is used to illustrate the passing of time. Anderson makes these characters both humorous and human through actions and descriptions. “The art room is one of the places I feel safe,” (160) Melinda says, and this is as much because of her art teacher as it is the physical space. But the school is more than a physical environment. Anderson does an excellent job showing changes throughout the year through her only friend joinning “The Marthas”, by varying teachers’ appearance such as “Hairwoman no more”, as well as showing Melinda’s report card as the reader moves from marking period to marking period.
My only problem with the book is the author’s portrayal of Melinda’s parents. There is one scene when Melinda cuts her wrists with a paper clip, etching a design into her skin. “I open up a paper clip and scratch it along the inside of my left wrist. Pitiful. If a suicide attempt is a cry for help, then what is this? A whimper, a peep? I draw little window cracks of blood, etching line after line until it stops hurting” (87). When her mom sees this, she says, “I don’t have time for this, Melinda” (88). I have to question how many parents would react that way? Having raised a daughter, I thought that this was an unrealistic portrayal of how a parent would react. Cutting is a huge sign of a problem and Melinda is obviously not hiding it from her parents. Could her parents really be that dense, self-centered, or uncaring?
Obviously, an important subject to tackle, I understand how there might be some who say the book is controversial. Reading this book made me realize how important it is to shed light on the subject, especially after the author wrote in the Q & A about how she gets one question that shocks her. Boys ask her “Why Melinda was so upset about being raped” (204).
Anderson, Laurie Halse (2003). Speak. New York, NY: Penguin Books.