Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak
June 9, 2011, 7:17 am
Filed under: Book Reviews, YA Lit | Tags: , , , , , ,

Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak is advertised as a classic of young adult fiction, but it’s one that only came to my attention about six months ago despite its 1999 publication date and my occasional enthusiastic forays into the young adult section of the library. This was an interesting time to read the book, given the recent Wall Street Journal piece declaiming against violence, sex and foul language in current young adult fiction.

Anderson’s book, although frequently banned, isn’t “offensive” in the way the WSJ piece suggests so much contemporary YA fiction is. Anderson deals with what my fifteen-year-old self would label some “heavy issues,” but she does so by exploring her narrator Melinda’s reactions to the events that shape her school year rather than the violence itself. Her novel is, literally, about a girl who refuses to speak, a girl who sees no way of expressing what has happened to her and finds herself abandoned by her friends, shunned by nearly everyone at her school, because what happened to her and what she did afterwards were so misunderstood.

Anderson’s prose is occasionally clumsy, as when she describes one teacher having a “[n]ose like a credit card sunk between his eyes” (10), but obscuring that fault is her skill at describing high school (“Every year they say we’re going to get right up to the present, but we always get stuck in the Industrial Revolution… We need more holidays to keep the social studies teachers on track” [7]), the cruelties of teenage girls (as when Melinda’s one remaining friend, a student new to the high school, matter-of-factly friend dumps her at lunch), and the mind of a student verging on collapse. Melinda is the sort of person, the sort of character, we shy from in life and fiction for the ways in which she refuses to simply “deal” with her issues or reshape herself into the sort of socially acceptable girl she was before the summer leading up to her ninth grade year. Anderson is unflinching in her portrayal of the character.

More than that, Anderson has given us a character who is not only nearly mute when dealing with those in her world, but one who is not capable of admitting to herself what has happened until halfway through Speak. Until that point the reader is left knowing only that something happened over the summer to define Melinda’s year, and her depression, her reluctance to speak and her fear of approaching old friends, are difficult to understand until Melinda herself thinks of herself in terms of “shame.” Melinda does, of course, eventually reveal to herself, to the reader, to one of her friends, what has happened to her, but even then it seems uncertain that she’ll pull herself out of the depression that for the school year has seen her sleeping through whole afternoons and skipping as many classes as she attends.

Anderson’s book should be required reading for teens, not just for the issues it examines but for giving a voice to the sort of high school student it is often easiest to ignore. Contrary to what the Wall Street Journal piece has to say on some other young adult offerings, Anderson deals with sex and violence and depression in an adult fashion, showing what Melinda’s life has become as the result of both what happened to her and her shame over what happened to her, but without glorifying the idea of being a down and out teenager.

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