by Laurie Halse Anderson, Puspeak.gifblished in 1999
Merryweather High School, home of the Trojans—not to mention the Wombats, Tigers, and Hornets—forms the not-so-welcoming backdrop for the novel Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson. Melinda, the main character, has just been thrust into her freshman year, while still reeling from a summer party that changed her life forever. Exactly what happened? She explains:

I was on the ground, and he was on top of me…His lips lock on mine, and I can’t say anything. I twist my head away. He is so heavy. There is a boulder on me. I open my mouth to breathe, to scream, and his hand covers it. In my head, my voice is as clear as a bell: ‘NO I DON’T WANT TO!’ But I can’t spit it out…he smells like beer and mean and he hurts me hurts me hurts me and gets up and zips his jeans. (135-6)

That’s right, Melinda was raped. When she called 911, she couldn’t bring herself to say a single word, so nobody ever found out what happened, not even her parents. Unfortunately, the other party-goers did find out that it was Melinda who made the call that got them busted. Just like that, she went from being a typical teenager to being the school’s biggest outcast.

Melinda doesn’t have a single friend among the other Merryweather students, who “fall into clans: Jocks, Country Clubbers, Idiot Savants, Cheerleaders, Human Waste, Eurotrash, Future Fascists of America, Big Hair Chix, the Marthas, Suffering Artists, Thespians, Goths, [and] Shredders” (4). Her former best fried, Rachel Bruin, has abandoned her in favor of a newer, cooler group of exchange students. Melinda is quickly, although temporarily, befriended by Heather, a new student who doesn’t know any better. Heather’s enthusiasm serves as a mirror for Melinda, reflecting back to her all the things she once was—“happy, driven, aerobically fit”—but also reminding her of how drastically her life has been altered. “I used to be like Heather,” she thinks. “Have I changed that much in two months?” (24).

The truth is, Melinda has changed. She’s not the same girl she once was, and only she and the reader understand why. Sharing the secret of her rape creates a powerful bond between them, which is furthered by the fact that the entire story is told through Melinda’s eyes. Her thoughts and feelings, while hidden from the rest of the world, are made clear as day to readers. They know her in a way that nobody in the story possibly can, simply because they know about IT. IT is Andy Evans, the boy who raped her. Incidentally, he’s also the most popular guy at Merryweather High.

Going to school with Andy forces Melinda to confront her painful memories on a daily basis. Unfortunately, it also gives him the opportunity to attack for a second time, which he takes the week after prom. Yet while Melinda was scared into silence before, that does not mean she’ll react the same way again. A difficult year has made her stronger, and this time, when all is said and done, it will be Andy who “cannot speak.” As Melinda puts it, “that’s good enough” (195).

In finding the courage to stand up for herself, Melinda truly does become the heroine of her own story. Underneath the scabby-lipped, close-mouthed body the world sees is a person who readers can relate to in a variety of ways. For those who have been through a similar, terrifying experience, she offers assurance that they’re not alone, and that they can survive. Her words prove that being a victim once does not have to mean being a victim forever. She explains that, "IT happened. There is no avoiding it, no forgetting. No running away, or flying, or burying, or hiding. Andy Evans raped me in August when I was drunk and too young to know what was happening. It wasn't my fault. And I'm not going to let it kill me. I can grow" (198).

Not only can Melinda grow, but she can help her audience grow as well. Readers who have never experienced terrible pain and isolation still come to understand and identify with Melinda, a character that, if they were to meet her in the hallway, would seem very different from them. As a result, they are asked to reexamine how they judge people, and to think carefully about how their actions may have hurt others in the past.

More than being a story about rape, or life in high school, Speak is the story of Melinda. It’s the tale of her struggle, but also of her courage in the face of unimaginable hurt and pain. Not only does she win her battle against fear and silence, but she wins a permanent place in the hearts and minds of those who come to know her. She embodies hope and strength in a devastating situation that nobody, much less a teenager, should ever have to experience, and does so in a way that makes her appealing to many different kinds of readers. Melinda’s character is certainly worth getting to know, and Speak is a definitely a novel worth reading.

Recommendations for Teachers

Speak, though a gratifying read for any age group, would be best suited for English classrooms grades eight through ten. The text is embedded with symbolism and distinguished literary style that would be most advantageous to lower class men due to its readability and unequivocal language. Students will likely empathize with the novel's protagonist and therefore may be more willing to engage in class discussion.

Teachers should be forewarned about subject matter pertaining to rape, violence, teen drinking, and
profanity. These subjects, however touchy, do not hinder the quality of the plot. Quite the contrary, the plot would not exist without these elements. Teachers could use these topics as a springboard for discussion about issues that may concern students, such as social hierarchy within high school, bullying, violence, rape, depression, and stereotyping.

Also worth consideration are the literary elements applied in the story. It may be beneficial for teachers to pose the following questions to students:
- How does first person narration shape the story? How would the novel change if it had been written in third person?
- What role do adults play in the novel, and how might that affect the protagonist's view of growing up?
- What is the symbolism of the tree project Melinda is assigned in art class?
- Few characters in the story are looked upon highly by Melinda. Of those that she actually admires, what characteristics do they have in common?
- Of the following conflict possibilities, which are the most crucial to the novel's
[[http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/plot[1]|plot]]: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Self, Man vs. Society (?)
- Why did the author choose to segment in the novel into seasons rather than more common measures of time, such as days, weeks, months, etcetera?

About the Authorexternal image anderson-laurie-halse.gif

Laurie Halse Anderson was born in Potsdam, NY on October 23, 1961. Her mother is Joyce Holcomb Halse, and her father is Frank hales. She is married to Greg Anderson, and they have two daughters by the names of Stephanie and Meredith. Throughout school, Anderson is said to have enjoyed reading and have been very creative. After graduating High School in Potsdam, she attended Onondaga Community College and Georgetown Universitywhere she graduated from with a B.S.L.L in languages and Linguistics in 1984.

Laurie began writing books after doing some freelance reporting, her first book Ndito Runs was published in 1996. Her book Speak was published in 1999 and has been a
New York Times bestseller, a national Book Award Finalist, a Booklist “Top 10 first novels of 1999” and Printz Honor Book. Quoting directly from her platinum edition of the book, her inspiration for writing Speak is that “There are lots of kids out there in Melina’s position-struggling with depression and teetering on the edge of disaster-but people don’t pay attention unless they do something drastic. This makes me so angry I could scream…or better yet, write a book.”


A clip from the movie.

A video introduction to the novel and movie.

External Links

Laurie Halse Anderson's main site: http://www.writerlady.com/
Anderson's blog: http://halseanderson.livejournal.com/
Blog about Speak: http://blog.mawbooks.com/2008/08/27/speak-by-laurie-halse-anderson/
Teenreads book review: http://www.teenreads.com/reviews/0374371520.asp
Speak, the movie: http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=speak+movie&search_type=&aq=f
Speak lesson plan: http://www.viterbo.edu/personalpages/faculty/GSmith/LessonPlanforSpeak.htm
Recommended by Anderson for victims of sexual assault: http://rainn.org/

This page was compiled by Kate Pillsbury, Kierra Jones, Lamia Ghannam, Santana Aker, and Sierra Holmes.