Speak (1999), by Laurie Halse Anderson

A powerful illustration of the trauma experienced by a young rape victim, and the necessity for the adults in our world to be more aware and proactive in supporting teens at risk or in need.  The silencing of the protagonist, Mel, is universal: the adults around her can not hear what she cannot say; her peers actively turn their backs on her, refuse to listen, even if she should speak. Which she doesn’t. Can’t. Not even completely to herself, to the readers, to whom her silence speaks volumes.

Through Anderson’s superior narrative craft, we are immersed in Melinda’s world: her silence, her guilt, her depression.  Only one adult—her art teacher—can see that despite her silence she has something to say, and what that might be worries him.  But as a male teacher, with problems of his own, his hands are tied, despite his recognizing that Mel is “a good kid”: “I think you have a lot to say. I’d like to hear it” (123). Once she finally finds her voice, it is he to whom she can finally say “Let me tell you about it” (198).

While the characterization, the plot, and the tone of Anderson’s novel are exceptional, I think it is the language underlying the narrative that gives it such power. The images Anderson chooses all subtly suggest associations with sound, with speech, even when speech or silence is not the topic at hand: “I have never heard a more eloquent silence” (57), “Words are hard work” (85), “This is an uglynasty Momside. … Tough love. Sour sugar. Barbed velvet. Silent talk” (88), “he slices the canvas with my chisel, … a long, ripping sound that makes the entire class gasp” (92), “Tiny brow birds sing above me. No one knows how they got in, but they live in the mall and sing pretty” (99), “The cafeteria is a giant sound stage” (104).  So subtle are her examples that they are hard to distill, but a sense of sound, and of silence, resonates through the novel, enhancing our vicarious experience of Mel’s loneliness and isolation.

Ultimately, Mel finds her strength, but her journey is not trivialized, nor is her healing easy or complete.  Teenaged readers will believe fully in the reality of Mel’s situation, which might give those who need it the will to find the strength in themselves.

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