After meeting with a class of 7th and 8th graders who had been energetically debating Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, I decided I needed to try and find a way to read it sooner rather than later.
This novel seems like a standard recommendation for anyone who wishes to read YA or write it. I believe it's an important book not only for women (teens and adults alike), but also for boys and men as it shows the difficulty of being the object of sexual abuse and the damage that occurs over the long term. Considering the high-profile events of the past year involving rape and the battle for women's legal rights, a book like this can broaden a male reader's understanding of how male behavior and aggression, as well as female silence, need to be discussed rather than dismissed.
Anderson's style and thus Melinda's voice make this a great example of how one can pace a serious novel without losing the dramatic elements. Short paragraphs allow for a satisfying momentum but also frame a number of key emotions and scenes rather than allowing them to be lost in the shuffle. Melinda has moments to analyze her situation, her feelings, her disappointing friend Heather, her parents -- but none of these moments extends for pages on end, so the reader is never caught wondering if Melinda is a whiner, even if she can be excused for being one.
In fact, by the end of the novel I realized that many of her comments and thoughts about people around her -- her parents, for instance -- were not simply facts but thoughts from an embattled, depressed mind. Put simply, we can't take her comments at face value, because they are warped by her mental state. For instance, she refers to her father as Rambo, one who constantly berates her for her grades. This is factually true, but how aggressive was he "for real"? I believe that she felt he was uncaring, but when his caring side reappears one has to wonder if she's forgiven him or if she saw a version of him that was more angry than he truly was.
Her mother, perhaps unforgivably, says that people who commit suicide are cowards. By the end, I'm not sure whether to hate her mother (personally I find dismissal of suicidal thoughts and depression to be repugnant) or to wonder how the conversation between Melinda and her mother truly went.
The key here is not to doubt Melinda's honesty. If anything, readers are the only one she speaks to until the end, so we are clearly trusted enough to get information from her. But I believe Anderson has given a stellar example of how difficult it can be for a depressed person, also a victim of assault, to effectively process the world around them and effectively communicate facts when feelings, difficult feelings, have taken over.
While some might suggest the ending and the lack of exploration of the villain might devalue the impact or complexity of the novel's exploration of sexual assault, I suggest that not one text can encompass the variety of responses to such a serious issue. Further, the villain has been defined by his actions and unlike other villains, there's nothing about his behavior that can be interpreted in multiple ways. Consider that many villains can be called the hero of their own story, that he or she believes they are doing something right even if the actual hero and the audience know it to be wrong. (Easiest example: Darth Vader thinks he's doing something right by wiping out the rebels; because we root for Luke Skywalker, we don't believe it).
In this case, the villain can't be understood as anything other than a purely bad person. And I don't think that's a flaw in the narrative because Melinda would not see him as anything other than evil because of what he does. The key to the novel is who Melinda trusts, how people respond to her when she acts and speaks, and who supports her no matter what.
(I'd suggest A.S. King's novel on bullying EVERYONE SEES THE ANTS and Matthew Quick's forthcoming FORGIVE ME, LEONARD PEACOCK as complementary texts for readers wishing to understand the internal damage caused by abuse/assault involving male victims.)
The structure relies easily on the high school 4 marking period system, with holidays and the associated school events helping to carry the load of momentum. Basically, I love how Anderson allows for time to PASS in this novel without feeling the need to baste her character in day-after-day of silent misery. What ends up happening is that the weight of Melinda's silence, the very burden of her experience, is drawn out over the course of the entire school year so that, by the time we get to the climax, you truly feel her hopelessness. Plus, you really have no idea what she could do to combat her vocal paralysis.
The use of art in this text is also an excellent trope that many YA novels use (Anderson predating them all here). This is not a complaint or a criticism. In fact, I am never surprised when wounded characters use art to find some kind of strength (the more recent SYMPTOMS OF MY INSANITY shows how overwhelming art can be, not simply because it shakes loose mucky, difficult feelings, but because the labor of art is intense and can be just as difficult to deal with as the problems that cause one to flee to the art room).