Speak is a young adult novel written by Laurie Halse Anderson about a fifteen-year-old freshman named Melinda Sordino who suffers to maintain a normal life after she’s raped and becomes an outcast to everyone at her high school. The novel is written in first person, present tense, from Melinda’s perspective, over the course of her freshman year. In the beginning, the rape is a deep secret Melinda refuses to tell her friends and family, or the reader. She is clearly in pain as her first year of high school commences, and she stays distant from her friends and family, her only interest really in her art class. Her grades begin to suffer, and she thinks about cutting herself.
She truly suffers when she sees a senior at school named Andy, a handsome jock who flirts with seemingly every girl he comes across. Many are upset at Melinda because she called 9–1–1 and broke up the late summer party, but little do they know that she called 9–1–1 because Andy forced himself on her and engaged in sexual assault. But nobody knows, her parents confused at her behavior, her only friend Heather eventually abandoning her because she’s so often depressed.
For the first half of the school year, she keeps her feelings hidden, but in the second half of the year, the truth of that awful night becomes too big too ignore. She finally recognizes that she was raped, and tells an old friend Rachel, who’s about to go to the prom with Andy. In the end, the truth of what happened to Melinda is revealed, and she’s finally able to speak about the event.
Speak is a deeply emotional and richly complex young adult novel that has many themes to be discussed. The first major theme of the novel is disdain from others. Why so many students hate Melinda at the beginning of the novel is a mystery, but it plays a big role in making her feel like an outcast. Author Anderson writes,
Rachel and every other person I’ve known for nine years continue to ignore me. I’m getting bumped a lot in the halls. A few times my books were accidentally ripped from my arms and pitched to the floor. I try not to dwell on it.
Anderson is wise to set the book during Melinda’s freshman year, a time in any young person’s life that is filled with anxieties and uncertainties. That is the year everyone is concerned with making friends and fitting in, so this hate Melinda receives becomes a major struggle. It’s especially a hardship when her only friend Heather, a girl who just recently moved to Melinda’s hometown of Syracuse, New York, tells her how she really feels:
‘You don’t like anything. You are the most depressed person I’ve ever met, and excuse me for saying this, but you are no fun to be around and I think you need professional help.’
That bit of truth sends Melinda into an emotional tailspin, as she tries to come to terms with the horrific sexual assault she endured at a party the previous August. The reader doesn’t know right off the hand what happened to her, just that Melinda broke up a party, angering many, and so Anderson allows the central mystery of the novel to linger, just like Melinda’s frustrating attitude toward most people around her.
She not only becomes an outcast from other students at school, but her parents, who at never in any point of the novel fully understand the magnitude of what Melinda is going through. This leads to the second major theme of the novel, which is family isolation. Melinda clearly doesn’t understand her mother and father, as she explains at one point:
Mom says I take after Dad’s side of the family. They’re mostly cops and insurance salesmen who bet on football games and smoke disgusting cigars. Dad says I take after Mom’s side of the family. They’re farmers who grow rocks and poison ivy.
This example illustrates how neither her mother or father really understand who Melinda is, no clue as to exactly what her personality suggests about which side of the family she belongs to. Melinda doesn’t feel she belongs to either side, really, as she says,
My family doesn’t talk much and we have nothing in common, but if my mother cooks a proper Thanksgiving dinner, it says we’ll be a family for one more year. Kodak logic. Only in film commercials does stuff like that work.
Melinda ultimately has no one to turn to with her problems, not all the friends at school who have ostracized her, not from her parents who live in their own worlds and have little to offer. Many young people can turn to their parents in time of emotional distress, but Melinda can’t communicate with her mother and father, since they have their own problems. Her father has a love for the bottle:
I hear Dad turn on the television. Clink, clink, clink — he drops ice cubes in a heavy-bottomed glass and pours in some booze.
And both her parents have a tendency to argue:
I look Mom square in the eye, then rinse my plate and retreat to my room. Deprived of Victim, Mom and Dad holler at each other. I turn up my music to drown out the noise.
The novel is realistic in presenting parents who have problems of their own, and who may not have the time or the energy to deal with a daughter who may be going through something traumatic.
There is only one love in Melinda’s life that she’s able to turn to in this trying time, and that is art. Art as a healing device is a third theme of the novel, something that plays a major role from beginning to end. At one point Melinda says that the only A she’s gotten on her report card her freshman year is her art class, and it’s easy to see why:
I’m getting the hang of this. While Ivy and Mr. Freeman watch, I reach in and pluck out the Barbie head. I set it on top of the bony carcass. There is no place for the palm tree — I toss that aside. I move the knife and fork so they look like legs. I place a piece of tape over Barbie’s mouth.
Unlike the way she sleepwalks through every other class that year, she has not only an interest in creating art, but a fanatical determination to make her work extraordinary to the last possible detail. She starts spending time in the art room after school, sometimes frustrated when she can’t get her work right, but always willing to try again. Anderson writes,
When I try to carve it, it looks like a dead tree, toothpicks, a child’s drawing. I can’t bring it to life. I’d love to give it up. Quit. But I can’t think of anything else to do, so I keep chipping away at it.
People all over the world have been saved by art, whether it’s painting or drawing or writing or taking photographs. It is often a go-to for people who need an outlet in times of distress, and it is that in every way for Melinda, especially as the months go on and her inner turmoil becomes worse, not better. She says,
I work on Heather’s posters for two weeks. I try to draw them in the art room, but too many people watch me. It is quiet in my closet, and the markers smell good. I could stay here forever.
She could effectively stay there forever because there’s nothing to fear in that closet, only something beautiful that is able in the short term make her feel better.
It’s so hard to feel better because Melinda is holding in a deep secret about what happened to her at that August party, keeping it from her friends and family, and the reader for a long stretch as well. This leads us to the fourth and final major theme of the novel: voiceless secrets.
The novel’s title stems from this theme, that Melinda isn’t truly able to face her fears or grow as a character until she is able to speak about her terrible secret, because until that point, it is stifling her in almost every way. Melinda is vague about the secret early in the novel, like in this example:
This year Rachelle is going to a party thrown by one of the exchange students’ host families. I heard her talk about it in algebra. I knew I wouldn’t get an invitation. I would be lucky to get an invitation to my own funeral with my reputation.
Or in this example:
There is a beast in my gut, I can hear it scraping away at the inside of my ribs. Even if I dump the memory, it will stay with me, staining me. My closet is a good thing, a quiet place that helps me hold these thoughts inside my head where no one can hear them.
Author Anderson could just have Melinda tell the reader what happened, clearing up any confusion the reader may have, but this sense of mystery stays true to Melinda’s willingness to keep the secret hidden, even, in some ways to herself. As the novel continues, Melinda has a yearning to speak out, especially as more and more details regarding what happened to her come to light:
I almost tell them right then and there. Tears flood my eyes. […] I try to swallow the snowball in my throat. This isn’t going to be easy. I’m sure they suspect I was at the party.
But it’s not until the fourth part of the novel that Melinda is finally able to say the word, rape. Anderson writes,
I didn’t call the cops to break up the party, I write. I called — I put the pencil down. I pick it up again — them because some guy raped me.
Finally telling her friend Rachel the word sets in motion a series of tumultuous events that forces Melinda to face her fears, and finally reveal the wrongdoing that kept her quiet for so long:
IT happened. There is no avoiding it, no forgetting. No running away, or flying, or burying, or hiding. Andy Evans raped me in August when I was drunk and too young to know what was happening. It wasn’t my fault. He hurt me.
Melinda has grown enough that she’s not only able to tell the reader what she’s experienced, but to also speak it aloud. At the end of the novel, staying voiceless is no longer an option.
Why I Love This Book
Anderson’s young adult novel has been immensely popular to younger readers in the twenty years since it was published, required reading at many high schools, forever near the top of bookseller charts in children’s literature. It was a thrill to finally read this novel and see what all the fuss is about.
I was incredibly impressed and enthralled by the novel, particularly in the striking voice of the protagonist. I don’t believe this novel would be as beloved as it is if it had been written, say, in third person, or if the first person read more like an adult voice than a teenage voice.
Anderson is masterful at beautifully capturing a teenager’s voice in this book, never a moment I felt her own author voice creeping in. Many agents I query novels to reject my work with the phrase, “I didn’t connect with the voice,” and Anderson, if nothing else in this book, gives Melinda a strong, resonating voice from beginning to end.
The way the novel starts is simple but effective:
It is my first morning of high school. I have seven new notebooks, a skirt I hate, and a stomachache.
What’s a better way to hook a teenage reader than that? There’s no ominous tone in the opening sentences, no loud proclamation to the universe about rape and revenge. First morning of high school, bad fashion, stomachache — something nearly every teenager can relate to, making the reader immediately relate to the protagonist. Anderson’s voice for the main character is striking in many ways. First, in how Melinda’s inner pain is demonstrated to the reader. She writes,
I hide in the bathroom until I know Heather’s bus has left. The salt in my tears feels good until it stings my lips. I wash my face in the sink until there is nothing left of it, no eyes, no nose, no mouth. A slick nothing.
Anderson is brilliant at making Melinda sound almost poetic at times in the way she describes her pain, while also still sounding like a relatable teenager. She never resorts to lines like “I’m so sad right now, thinking about Andy,” but she still keeps the language simple, which is important. This is a fifteen-year-old girl talking, so the language can’t be on the level of a well-read adult, but this doesn’t mean Melinda has to sound dumb. She sounds like a thoughtful teenager trying to make sense of a wrongdoing that happened to her, and Anderson knows that Melinda can’t stay sad all the time.
She also allows humor in Melinda’s voice, which allows moments of levity for the reader. She writes,
My English teacher has no face. She has uncombed stringy hair that droops on her shoulders. The hair is black from her part to her ears and then neon orange to the frizzy ends. I can’t decide if she had pissed off her hairdresser or is morphing into a monarch butterfly. I call her Hairwoman.
And then later, Anderson writes,
She complains all the time about her hair turning gray and her butt sagging and her skin wrinkling, but I’m supposed to be grateful for a face full of zits, hair in embarrassing places, and feet that grow an inch a night. Utter crap.
If Melinda were sad all the time, this would be a hard book to get through, almost too painful to read about, and so the humor is essential, showing a multi-dimensional protagonist who always has a lot going on in her head.
In addition, the realism of Melinda’s PTSD comes through in her voice as well, Anderson never letting her questionable traits to stay off the page. Melinda tries to hurt herself at points, which may make Melinda appear weak, but also realistic to readers everywhere. She says,
I open up a paper clip and scratch it across the inside of my left wrist. Pitiful. If a suicide attempt is a cry for help, then what is this? A whimper, a peep?
There will be moments of humor, moments of pain, moments of weakness, but they all add up to a well-developed protagonists who readers can relate to, and want to read more about.
Another element Anderson does well, something I’ve always struggled is, is setting. If setting is hard in third person, it’s nearly impossible in first, because characters rarely stop in the middle of the scene and look around to take in their setting.
It can read awkwardly, especially in present tense, because it feels there just to give an image to the reader, but Anderson includes moments of setting that feel entirely natural. She writes,
The sun doesn’t shine much in Syracuse, so the art room is designed to get every bit of light it can. It is dusty in a clear-dirt kind of way. The floor is layered with dry splotches of paint, the walls plastered with sketches of tormented teenagers and fat puppies, the shelves crowded with clay pots.
The reader gets lots of great detail here, but none of them sound verbose, or something Melinda wouldn’t necessarily notice. Later, Anderson writes,
The air swirls with sawdust. Sap oozes from the open sores on the trunk. He is killing the tree. He’ll only leave a stump.
Although those first two sentences sound a bit outside Melinda’s vocabulary, it’s just subtle enough to sound realistic, and more importantly, in just a few choice words it gives a great image to the reader.
Another element I enjoyed about Speak was its attention to the teachers of the school and the classes themselves, which one may be surprised to hear is often passed over in most young adult fiction. Anderson spends lots of time developing Melinda’s teachers, showing us what she has to do not just in her art class but in all her other classes, sometimes in short chapter spurts and other times in longer sections.
Sometimes in reading a young adult novel, I never get the sense that the main character is actually a high school student, all the scenes taking place outside the school. But in Speak, that’s never the case. It’s just that a teacher plays a major role in the narrative, like Mr. Freeman, Melinda’s art teacher:
Mr. Freeman throws his hands in the air. ‘Enough! Please turn your attention to the bookshelves.’ We dutifully turn and stare. Books. This is art class.
It’s that Melinda often takes the time to notice the teachers, never just focusing on her own problems. Anderson writes,
Our teachers need a snow day. They look unusually pale. The men aren’t shaving carefully and the women never remove their boots. They suffer some sort of teacherflu. Their noses drip, their throats gum up, their eyes are rimmed with red.
The teachers aren’t one-dimensional in this book, which makes it stand out among those in the young adult contemporary category.
Finally, I looked at how Anderson developed tension throughout her novel. It’s subtle, but the tension is always there, not just in how she presents more and more details about the huge secret to the reader, but also in how the secret plays a bigger and bigger role in the narrative in part four of the novel. First, in regards to the character of Rachel:
Andy Beast asked Rachel to go with him [to the prom]. I can’t believe her mother is letting her go, but maybe she agreed because they’re going to double with Rachel’s brother and his date.
Both Melinda and the reader know at this point that Andy is the rapist, and so there’s this fear that he might try to rape Rachel, the suspense growing especially after Melinda tells Rachel what he did to her at that August party. When she still agrees to go to the prom, the reader suspects something terrible is going to happen. It doesn’t, Rachel making the right decision to abandon Andy before the prom is even over, but then this leads to a scary confrontation between Melinda and Andy that provides the most suspense of all in the novel. Anderson writes,
I reach in and wrap my fingers around a triangle of glass. I hold it to Andy Evan’s neck. He freezes. I push just hard enough to raise one drop of blood. He raises his arms over his head. My hand quivers. I want to insert the glass all the way through his throat, I want to hear him scream.
The tension in this scene is unbearable compared to anything else in the novel, and it’s needed I think to show how Melinda is able to stand up to her attacker and prove to herself that she no longer needs to be a victim. It’s a tremendously effective scene that provides catharsis to the reader, one made even better with Anderson’s strong prose.
Brian Rowe is an author, teacher, book devotee, and film fanatic. He received his MFA in Creative Writing and MA in English from the University of Nevada, Reno, and his BA in Film Production from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He writes young adult and middle grade suspense novels, and is represented by Kortney Price of the Corvisiero Agency. You can read more of his work at his website, brianrowebooks.com.