Another review of Speak? I must be joking, yes? Well, no. I know everyone either has read or is reading this novel right about now. I know every blogger everywhere has posted thoughts and personal stories and reviews. I thought about just letting this one slide. But I did read it, and it was an excellent book, and I do have thoughts, and I do want to add my voice to all the others out there. So here we go.
I read Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson for Banned Books Week. I won’t recap all the controversy it sparked earlier in the month; if you missed the madness, I posted about it when I introduced my BBW selections. Suffice to say that one man’s article against the book has generated more positive support and attention for it than I’d ever have thought possible!
Speak is the story of Melinda Sordino, a ninth-grader who has been raped. Shunned by the entire student body for calling the cops to the party where it happened, Melinda struggles through the school year without friends or motivation. Most of the time she doesn’t speak. And she certainly never talks about what happens to her. The story is told from Melinda’s perspective and staying very much inside her head.
I loved Melinda’s voice. There is little dialogue in the book, so mostly the story comes from Melinda’s inner monologue. She’s darkly, bitterly funny, with a sharp intellect, and her narrative voice rings true. Her descriptions of high school are dead on:
The hot lunch is turkey with reconstituted dried mashed potatoes and gravy, a damp green vegetable, and a cookie. I’m not sure how to order anything else, so I just slide my tray along and let the lunch drones fill it. This eight-foot senior in front of me somehow gets three cheeseburgers, French fries, and two Ho-Hos without saying a word. Some sort of Morse code with his eyes, maybe. Must study this further. I follow the Basketball Pole into the cafeteria.
Cliques, teachers, subjects, pep rallies, prom, parties, parents, ex-friends, the ever-changing school mascot — she nails them all.
Double spaces between each paragraph and dialogue set off play-style, with the character’s name followed by a colon, serve as graphic representations of Melinda’s isolation. Short, individually titled sections break the novel into vignettes instead of a sustained drama. All of it — narrative voice, structure, divisions — worked for me in bringing Melinda and her situation to life.
Many bloggers have posted intensely personal accounts of experiences like Melinda’s. I have read so many of them, each one unique yet knotted into the same theme. They are raw and honest and painful. They talk about being able to relate to Melinda, about how Speak speaks to them, to their experiences. I have been so lucky in my life never to have undergone what Melinda suffers. As I finished Speak, I thought to myself, “How on earth can I write a post about this book? How can I share my thoughts on it when there are so many people out there sharing personal, heart-breaking stories?”
And then I realized something. Part of why I read is to experience other points of view, to delve into situations and beliefs that are foreign to me so that I can gain a deeper understanding of the people and world around me. Speak has provided me such a window. Each personal account I read from now on will have an added layer of understanding thanks to Anderson’s novel. Fiction can give us a base from which we can begin to relate to that which we have not personally experienced.
Each book a person reads either resonates with her own experience or teaches her about something new. Both outcomes are positive in some way. Each book has the potential to form connections: between the book and its reader, between two readers, between a reader and someone who shares the book’s experience. To ban a book is to take away that potential, to take away those valuable connections that enrich our lives.