“When people don’t express themselves, they die one piece at a time. You’d be shocked at how many adults are really dead inside—walking through their days with no idea who they are, just waiting for a heart attack or cancer or a Mack truck to come along and finish the job. It’s the saddest thing I know.” – Mr. Freeman
Fear, it is something that can control our lives. It can infect our daily routine and cause us to feel a constant unease that can ruin the most basic of activities. Now ramp that fear up to a traumatic experience and it begins to envelop every aspect of us. Something as basic as looking in the mirror or eating breakfast can be ruined by memories of that experience, and the fear often flows back into our minds again and again. It is this type of fear that Melinda faces in Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel, Speak. The book is a first-person journal of Melinda’s life as she enters high school, as a freshman with no friends. They have all rejected her because she accidentally called the cops to a party in the summer. But they don’t understand that the reason she was calling the police was because she had been raped by a senior in her future school, so she called the police and didn’t know what to say. She remained silent on the line. It is this silence that encapsulates Melinda’s journey throughout the novel, and why it is called Speak.
The big theme that is spread throughout the novel is Melinda’s search for a voice. She struggles to cope with trying to tell someone what happened, which leads her to a state of depression. Her parents don’t help any, as they are both preoccupied with their own lives. Her only friend, Heather, ends up ditching her for a group of more popular girls, and her silence ends up making her a target for some of her teachers in school. The only person that seems to be okay with her silence is her Art teacher, Mr. Freeman, who just tries to nurture Melinda with art, to try and convince her to create something and express herself through her art. It is this nurturing voice and soft guidance that helps Melinda to discover her method of expressing her anxiety, her pain, and, ultimately, her fear. Her ability to find her voice also comes from her will to protect her former best friend Rachel, who began dating Melinda’s rapist not long after the traumatic incident. Melinda wishes to keep her safe, and it is this fear for Rachel that allows Melinda to speak up about being raped and be free of the burden she has carried around for so long.
While I know of a few teachers that have used Speak in their classroom, I was not enthralled with the book. One of my issues with it came from the fact that I did not really connect with Melinda as a character. I feel as though this may be because I have never really felt fear and I have never had a traumatic experience that I have had to work through. I am also a fairly loud individual and rarely feel at a loss for words or feel the need to be reserved in the way I speak. So I was not a fan of the novel; however, unlike my last review, I did feel as though Anderson’s characters were fully fleshed out and were well crafted. I was just unable to connect and struggled to dig into the story. I definitely think it is a viable novel for lit circles, but it has some strong content that I would suggest needs to be used with grade 9 students or higher. For Lit Circles, I would use it with Anderson’s own Twisted, Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone or Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall. Each of these books also deals with a traumatic experience that leads the protagonist to look for their voice to express what they had seen or experienced. Speak is a frustratingly good novel that I just didn’t connect with, but will connect with many who have struggled to find their own voice.