A day late and a dollar short, but The Rejectionist's call for banned book reviews has been heeded!
I read Speak last week just because it was banned. I didn't think I would like it because everywhere I looked this book was described as the story of a girl who was raped and kept silent. In this regard, proponents of Speak are making the same mistake that nay-saying book banners are.
It is not about rape. It is not about a rape victim who chooses to remain silent.
IT IS NOT ABOUT RAPE.
Melinda, the main character, is raped. She does not choose to remain silent, she simply can't speak. Her trauma has left her so isolated and depressed that she can't bring herself to speak of it, or much of anything else. The inciting incident could have been any trauma, the point is that this girl withdraws so abruptly and so far that no one can figure her out and furthermore, no one tries to. She has no support. She is representative of so many marginalized kids that she is practically a poster child for why the high school years are NOT the best of your life.
It is about a girl who is drowning while no one notices.
Now that I've gotten that off my chest, on to the review-y portion of the show.
First: This book is side-splittingly funny. I'm like most of the unwashed genre-reading masses. I'm unlikely to read a book because it tackles a tough issue but I will devour a book that keeps me turning the pages. Every synopsis, every reference to Speak makes it sound downright bleak but Anderson does a masterful job infusing Melinda's voice with an authentic, sometimes acerbic commentary on high school life.
On the first page Melinda applies her full concentration to where she will sit on the bus. Again in the cafeteria. Her friends have judged her a narc and abandoned her and the only person who will sit with her on purpose is a transfer student with no friends. Really takes you back, doesn't it? Who doesn't remember the crushing importance of where you sit and WHOM you sit with?
Heather-the-transfer-from-Ohio is now Melinda's only companion. Heather is quite the joiner, looking for any entre onto the high school social ladder. Drama club, the Marthas (a clique of seasonal sweater wearing, crafty, teacher supportive types), pep rallies, all of these represent inclusion to Heather. Melinda gets swept along for the ride because she lacks the energy to object. She harbors no hope or ambition of being included.
Meanwhile, Melinda's ex-best friend Rachel is carving out a new identity for herself:
Rachel is with me in the bathroom. Edit that. Rachelle is with me in the bathroom. She has changed her name. Rachelle is reclaiming her European heritage by hanging out with the foreign-exchange students...She can swear in French. She wears black stockings with runs and doesn't shave under her arms.
She puts a candy cigarette between her lips. Rachelle wants desperately to smoke, but she has asthma, She has started a new Thing, unheard of for a ninth-grader. Candy cigarettes...Next thing you know, she'll be drinking black coffee and reading books without pictures.
Melinda's observations on her teachers are equally funny and insightful. Over the course of the year we see her first impressions of her art teacher flesh out, but he is the only teacher who makes an effort to reach her. He is also the one who comes closest to getting her to talk. She has stretched enough in his class to create a truly disturbing sculpture of a mute Barbie trapped inside a literal skeleton- the remains of the turkey her parents failed to render edible for Thanksgiving.
Her art teacher and relationship with art evolve in a fascinating way. She struggles with expression. Her teacher recognizes this and encourages her to keep trying, to find what works. He gives her a book of Picasso sketches. The disconnect from reality in Cubism speaks strongly to her own view of herself and her reality. Melinda's struggle with expressing herself through art proves her need to communicate even though conversation is beyond her grasp. It's delicate and subtle, but this detail underscores the idea that Melinda did not choose silence. She needs to be heard and lacks the tools to make it happen.
The remainder of Melinda's teachers seem uninterested in her frequent class-skipping, satisfied with the stolen hall passes she provides. Her grades are terrible, a huge departure from the previous year, and as a result her parents decide to tighten up on discipline. Heather eventually abandons her because she is such a downer. Not once has anyone asked her what is wrong or if they can help. When she tries to tell anyone anything more than "yes" or "no", her throat closes up to the point that she cannot talk. Her parents schedule a conference with the principal:
We have a meeting with Principal Principal. Someone has noticed that I've been absent. And that I don't talk.
They want me to speak.
"Why won't you say anything?" For the love of God, open your mouth!" "This is childish, Melinda." "Say something." "You are only hurting yourself by refusing to cooperate." "I don't know why she's doing this to us."
Melinda observes the conference, removed and imagining the entire thing as a scene in a musical. Her mother is concerned that the principal will think there are marital problems. The father threatens to call the school board. The guidance counselor institutes a carrot-and-stick plan whereby negative behavior has "consequences" and positive is rewarded.
At the end of the conference Melinda muses:
"Do they choose to be so dense? Were they born that way? I have no friends. I have nothing. I say nothing. I am nothing. I wonder how long it takes to ride a bus to Arizona."
By the end of the school year, Melinda's need to speak is so urgent that in one or two passages I felt my own throat tighten, trying to push the words out for her. She also has meaningful conversation with two people, both of whom show an interest in her. Her classmate David reaches out to her with a note first, supportive of her, indicating that her parents should have taken action against the teacher who forced her to do a report in front of the class. He follows up with conversation at her locker. It is the first meaningful dialogue she has outside of her head and occurs in the last quarter of the school year (and the book).
It stood out for two reasons. First, it was the first time I realized how little dialogue there had been. That's damn hard to pull off and keep a reader interested. Second, all it took to get her to speak more than one word at a time was a kind gesture and indication of true interest. It cracked her armor and the next person who speaks to her instead of at her is Ivy, another former friend. They talk in the bathroom and Ivy gets her to open up just enough to engage in bathroom graffiti against her attacker.
So little was required to free her enough to speak at all but she has passed through almost the whole school year with no one noticing or caring enough to reach out.
Suffice it to say, the ball is rolling and Melinda is finding her way back to the world by the end of the book. It's a great ending, redemptive, realistic, and hopeful.
But this book is not the story of a rape. It is the story of an epic fail on the part of a community to recognize Melinda's crisis and try to understand instead of force her to conform.
I will absolutely recommend this book. I will recommend it because it is a great read, compelling and funny. I will admire it for being important in spite of those things. And I will tell anyone who thinks it should be banned that I think that is a great idea. That way, more people will read it.