book reviews

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson: A Review

WARNING: If you haven’t yet read Speak, it will likely be best to read this afterward.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. 10th Anniversary Ed. Penguin Group 1999, 2009.

If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s when people condemn books and their readers without having read the very books they’re railing against. And their excuses for not reading the books are usually lame and illogical and, worse, actually bespeak of weakness and fear. (I know. I sound unforgiving. But this is important to me.)

Likewise, I don’t want to be that person who smothers the internet with support for a work I haven’t read. When I first heard that Laurie Halse Anderson‘s Speak was under fire, I delved further into the issue and, like a good supporter of quality literature, flew into the appropriate rage. I tweeted and facebooked in indignant response. But I’d never read Speak. I don’t think I’d even heard of it. I was spewing fire because I believe the act of literary censorship is wrong.

But then I was reminded of my days in university, a Christian one no less, when I was often under siege for either reading the wrong books (they hadn’t read) or swearing in plays (they also hadn’t read). I remembered kids refusing to read certain books, like Timothy Findley’s excellent Not Wanted on the Voyage, in English class because of their content; I recall being in the dean’s office and experiencing the unbelievable utter denial by authorities of the fact that very “unChristian” things (sex, drugs, and fighting, etc.) were happening on campus. And I remembered the blind arguments that had no valid reasons behind them; things were simply wrong, the way 2+2 is simply 4.

But to defend something, you should know why you’re defending it. (As the only Catholic in a sea of Protestants, I learned that very quickly. “Because that’s what I was taught” doesn’t cut it.) Thus, it also very quickly became clear to me that I was somewhat of a fraud; if my argument for Speak in particular was to have any weight, any substance and insight rather than simply regurgitation of what others had said before me, I would have to read the book. Of course I have no problem doing this. Like many, my typically rebellious self finds banned or challenged books especially attractive.

Now, I’m only going to review this book. I’m not going to sound off on why I think literary censorship is wrong or how I feel about the particular groups or individuals who wish to ban or challenge literature. What I will say is that I was brought up in a very strict Catholic home. I’ve kept standards, morals, from that. But as a person who questions everything, I’ve done my own thinking, too. I’ve formed my own beliefs and reasons behind those beliefs. And so while I believe in some Christian tenets, I’m also a huge believer in this: “I think you can leave the arts—superior or inferior—to the conscience of mankind.” That was Yeats, and I think he had a good point. If you help your kids form a conscience, how they’ll react to things usually reflects their upbringing. But you must allow them to think for themselves, too, or whatever they say will be empty.

In this particular case, Wes Scroggins’s trying to silence Speak is of course ironic. The act of trying to suppress the book is also sending the wrong message: that rape is synonymous with porn, that our kids shouldn’t know about it, or it is a denial that it does happen, that boys shouldn’t be portrayed in such a manner or be taught not to assault, that girls don’t have a valid voice, that authors do not have freedom to express themselves. Not to mention—though I’m just about to—that since he’s a Christian his agenda is contradictory in nature: rape is immoral; should we not be speaking out against it? I’m not saying Scroggins can’t express his thoughts; he can think and speak what he wants. What I question is his reasoning. The point of the book is to teach that rape is wrong and speaking out is necessary. Trying to prevent the book from being read is in essence disagreeing with its point.

I can say this now because I’ve read the book. There’s nothing gratuitous, titillating, or erotic, in the least, in Speak. In fact, while it has been hailed as one of the most influential books on the subject, and has been said to have freed many of its readers who were victims of abuse, rape, and sexual assault; while it has won at least 8 state book awards and been a finalist for 11, I found the most powerful bit in it not the actual story but the poem before it called “Listen.” Important bit of info here: I have never been raped or sexually assaulted. That undoubtedly affects my experience of this book; it could not touch me as much as it touched those who have finally spoken out because of it. It’s their voices I find more powerful than the story, and the brilliant way in which Laurie constructed the poem. I don’t think I can produce it here, for copyright reasons, but this is what the publisher had to say about it: “With the exception of the first and last stanzas, this poem comes from lines and words taken from the thousands of letters and e-mails that Laurie has gotten in the past ten years.” Super powerful stuff, this is. This is the real message. A fantastic way to start the book—or end it—and a good chunk of the reason I defend it.

The Book

Speak is narrated by a freshman girl named Melinda. She used to have friends. Her parents are negligent, clueless, dysfunctional. And she is trying to deal with the aftermath of having been raped by a schoolmate, a horrific crime that no one but her and the perpetrator, whom she often calls IT, knows about. The trauma of this experience—which we don’t read about till past the middle of the novel, and which is quite understated considering the act but perhaps understandably so because of how unable and unwilling she’s been to express and relive the horror of it—and the ostracism as a result have caused Melinda to lose her voice, almost literally. She retreats inside herself, hides in closets, thinks depressing thoughts, rebels (I actually admired this and found it exciting) and is unable to function well. She is flunking in school. Only one person, her art teacher, sees potential in her but above all that she has something she finds unspeakable that she needs to express. He encourages her through her art. Eventually, she also regains a real friend, and we find out that she excels at free-throwing and tennis. Reading that I felt much the same way I did when Napoleon Dynamite, “listless and aliened” like Melinda and a painful-to-witness geek in the extreme, suddenly busts a move on stage.

Throughout the book are all sorts of metaphors for what’s going on, particularly in seeds and trees, weather, and studying Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, and developments in Melinda’s activities, as well as a smaller but still realistic theme of identity crisis, and I found these too obviously significant, too purposeful, something I’ve become sensitive to having been accused of it in my own writing back in university. A big enough flaw for me, but the high school subject matter and Melinda’s first-person narrative drew me in and made me want to keep reading.

At the same time, I found myself becoming somewhat bored with Melinda’s narrative, which has actually been compared to that of Holden Caulfield, an annoyingly cliché and to me inaccurate comparison. Melinda’s voice seemed for too long to have one tone, as though she herself were bored. However, near the middle of the book things began to pick up, and I was both relieved but also disappointed in a way, because the developments seemed to come out of nowhere, then. The book began to seem too formulaic, using the seasons to mirror Melinda’s progression, etc. And yet I started to dog-ear pages (a new nasty habit I’ve suddenly discovered I must be okay with) as Melinda’s voice became more interesting. You get an extremely strong sense of character as the book progresses, and I suspect I would have liked Melinda very much in real life. Perhaps Halse Anderson herself was experiencing a greater clarity as her character spoke more strongly to her. Melinda’s realistic teenage narrative is not only morose and troubled but also mildly humorous, insightful, and creative:

The foreign kids are always there, like they need to breathe air scented with their native language a couple times a day or they’ll choke to death on too much American.

Underground, pale seeds roll over in their sleep. Starting to get restless. Starting to dream green.

By Monday morning, the prom [which of course Melinda did not attend] is legend. The drama! The tears! The passion! Why hasn’t anyone made a television show out of this yet? The total damage included one stomach pumped, three breakups of long-term relationships, one lost diamond earring, four outrageous hotel-room parties, and five matching tattoos allegedly decorating the behinds of the senior class officers. The guidance counselors are celebrating the lack of fatal accidents.

In the end, the stronger part for me in the book was not the actual rape scene but that which occurred in the closet between Melinda and IT; the narration is sharper, less dreamlike, more violent and effective. It is also significant, because Melinda regains her power and voice and thus the message comes full circle. Certainly nothing that should not be read. And so all over again I am incensed that someone wishes to take away Halse Anderson’s—hell, any author’s—right (much in the same way IT figures he can strip away Melinda’s rights) to express the story she feels is necessary to tell. The whole business is too ironic to not be laughable.

My parents pulled me out of health and sex ed classes in my elementary Catholic school. But going into high school with that info, as well as without the embarrassment of being told I could now go to the library for the duration of such classes, would have saved me a lot of headache and self-esteem issues. Imagine how much learning about rights and rape has saved not only a person’s sanity but perhaps even their life. In cases like this, there is more damage in suppression than in expression. And it is this that we need to consider most.

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  1. bee

    Gosh, the subject matter sounds full-on. I think I’ve been under my rock again, as I haven’t heard about this book and the furore surrounding it, so your review was very interesting. I think I grew up in the opposite sort of family to you, where anything goes; I forget that religion can still have such an impact on society. Living here in the Canadian Bible Belt has been a bit of an awakening for me after spending most of my life in free-for-all Melbourne. Sorry, that’s a bit off topic.
    Great review! I’ll keep an eye out for this book, but am not sure yet if I’ll read it.

    1. Steph Author

      Nah, it’s not you. First off, it’s a YA book that came out when we were graduating university or thereabouts. I hadn’t heard of it, either. It’s just that on Twitter everyone suddenly started tweeting about this book and because I feel strongly about censorship and have read quite a few banned or challenged books and found them favourites, I wanted to see what this was about. I typically don’t read stories like this but it’s really not as bad, at least to me, as it might sound. It’s not about the rape so much as the effects of it, and about a girl finding her voice and place. It’s a story, too, about what it’s like, simply, to be a teen.

      Religion is a way of life, so, totally, society would be affected by it. But while I’ve kept some of it (pretty much just my belief in God), most of it I’ve departed from in favour of spirituality.


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