Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
The publisher recently released the 20-year anniversary version of this story. I am far behind the boat on this, as it is my first time reading it. That’s what I love about words: they’re timeless. Twenty years later, I can discover a book and immerse myself in its pages.
“From the first moment of her freshman year at Merryweather High, Melinda knows this is a big fat lie, part of the nonsense of high school. She is friendless, outcast, because she busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops, so now nobody will talk to her, let alone listen to her. As time passes, she becomes increasingly isolated and practically stops talking altogether.
Only her art class offers any solace, and it is through her work on an art project that she is finally able to face what really happened at that terrible party: she was raped by an upperclassman, a guy who still attends Merryweather and is still a threat to her. Her healing process has just begun when she has another violent encounter with him. But this time Melinda fights back, refuses to be silent, and thereby achieves a measure of vindication.”
Melinda sees the world through the cynical eyes of someone it has treated unjustly. Her personality has a sharp edge to it, but not the edge of someone who is belligerent by nature. The bitter irony in her perspective is a defensive reaction to the pain acidifying her insides. Only Heather, a new student who is desperate to climb the social hierarchy, speaks to her.
You can tell a lot about a person by how they react to pain. Melinda holds hers inside, bearing her trauma in silence. Heather wails and shouts her troubles like a wolf howling at a full moon. The contrast between them adds power to the theme of the book.
The strength of this story is its subtlety. This is not a political manifesto, a b*tch party at the bar, or a transcript of a therapy session. The story focuses on Melinda as a person, her individual experience, and her processing what happened to her. It does not claim to represent all rape victims, nor does it strive to make vast cultural changes. This is about one girl learning to speak up for herself. Because of that, it is even more powerful.
This was the author’s debut novel, and her writing is flawless. When you begin with flawless and improve from there, you know you’re a good writer. I can attest to that, because, while this book was well written, the writing in her later publications left me in awe.
As you can see in the Amazon link below, the 20th anniversary edition has a different cover than the copy I checked out of the library. I like them both.
This book often appears in discussions about censorship and what topics ought to be permitted in public schools. Personally, I don’t see any reason this shouldn’t have a place on school library shelves. The descriptions were not so graphic as to be unreadable, and the subject is relevant to teenagers. The book itself is short enough not to take up an entire semester should teachers make it required reading, and I recommend they do. I got more from Speak than I did from most of the stuff teachers forced me to read in high school.
This book is well-worth reading. I read it in two sittings, but it is short enough to read in a day if you’re so inclined. I went to the library, but I would say it is not only worth buying, it would be worth buying two to have one to give to a friend.
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Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
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