Speak is a young adult novel that deals with the aftermath of a young woman’s rape: a time wherein she feels she cannot tell anyone what happened, leading to a period of depression. I hate to think that these things happen to people who are so young and vulnerable, and yet I know that it does occur, and more often than not, the blame is placed on the wrong person, or the victim is too afraid to speak to someone who can help them. Laurie Halse Anderson portrays this issue in a serious manner, which I think is very important, yet she doesn’t allow for it to be so dark that there is no hope for redemption. While I could not possible know what rape victims feel, or even have an inkling as to how it may stay with them throughout their entire lives, I want to believe that there is still the possibility for happiness after such a trauma.
The protagonist of Speak is a 13 year-old young woman named Melinda, who attends a party at the end of the summer before she enters high school, only to be raped by an older student, Andy. Drunk and disoriented, Melinda calls the police, but does not know what to say to them. Because she alerted the police to the party (which led to some students losing their jobs), many are angry with Melinda, and she begins high school with no friends, essentially ostracized from all of her peers. And yet, no one thought to ask Melinda why she phoned the police, despite the fact that something was clearly wrong.
The only person who befriends Melinda at the beginning of the year is a new student named Heather, who later leaves Melinda for a different clique known as the “Marthas”. Throughout the year, Melinda becomes more and more recluse from her peers, her teachers, and her parents. Her grades slip, she begins skipping school, and even makes a hideout in an old janitor’s closet to act as a sanctuary away from class and away from her home life. The only class wherein Melinda thrives is art class, where she uses her project to focus on her thoughts and work out what really happened to her. Overall, however, Melinda is clearly exhibiting signs of depression, and begins to almost stop speaking entirely, which her parents and other authority figures see as her means of seeking attention.
Melinda’s dormancy in the social world begins to break, however, in the form of her lab partner working with her to find a voice in certain classes. Her old best friend, Rachel, also starts to date Melinda’s rapist, Andy, and Melinda starts to feel as though she needs to do something in order to help her friend from being hurt like she was, thereby choosing to confront Rachel who doesn’t want to believe what Melinda is saying about Andy. Everything comes to a head, however, as Andy gets wind of what Melinda has been saying about him, and corners her once again for a final attack that brings everything out into the open and allows for Melinda to gain some (albeit, somewhat violent) resolution.
It is difficult to watch Melinda spiral into a state of not speaking at all, especially considering how there are so many teachers, adults, and other students around her who should be able to see that something is wrong and going on with her, and yet they just don’t. Isn’t it an educator’s job to pay attention to their students and be able to notice negative changes in behaviour, or am I asking too much of them? My friend recently obtained her first teaching job with low-academic students, and within a week she was able to identify certain aspects of her students’ behaviour that may be indicative of other issues. And what about Melinda’s parents? Why assume that her lack of speaking is because she is seeking attention? Did they ever stop to think about why she may be wanting attention in the first place? The whole thing is very frustrating, and could be one aspect of many that accounts for the reluctance of victims to report the crimes against them.
What this novel succeeds at, however, is not even dipping into the idea of victim blaming, except for some slights by the rapist himself. Yes, Melinda went to a party, drank, and danced closely to a boy, but she was 13 and being guided by an older, stronger male: a male who was the one that chose to engage in sex with her, regardless of her state of mind or exclamations of, “No.” Other students may be angry with her for calling the cops on the party, but even before Andy is caught attacking Melinda, there are still those ideas floating around the school that Andy is the one who is “trouble” and one to stay away from, not the girls who are the “sluts” that are “asking for it.” That kind of mindset disgusts me, and I honestly cannot fathom why it is such a common thing today for people to blame the actions of the victim, rather than those of the attacker.
In general, Speak carries a dark tone with it, but still contains some of the typical teenage sentiments of angst, friendship, and petty social issues. Overall, I found it to be a very successful novel, and would recommend it to many, despite being aimed at a young adult demographic. Just because teenagers are young and can be silly at times, that doesn’t mean that they don’t deal with many of the same, serious issues that everyone else does, and I think we sometimes forget that.
[Be sure to check out the Cannonball Read group blog]
*Heeeey, full Cannonball! Twice my goal of 26, which would be more surprising if I hadn't read so many graphic novels this year.