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Goat Heads and Sand Burrs, P. Kirby's Reading Blog

The good, bad, and fugly books I've read.
Speak - Laurie Halse Anderson


...while I wait for another lecture from my guidance counselor about not living up to my potential. How does she know what my potential is? Potential for what? When she talks blah blah, I usually count the dots in her ceiling tiles.

The above quote isn't the funniest in Speak, a book full of wit despite the dark premise, but it's one of the truest. As the protagonist says, "Potential for what?" Whenever some moronic adult started pontificating about potential, I would think, "Dude, you're so wrong. I've well on my way to becoming a great serial killer. And you're my next victim."

The Potential speech is right up there with, "I'm very disappointed in you." Right. Like the opinion of a middle-aged, balding, embittered, assistant principal mattered to my teenage self. This is one of those rare cases where I look back at my teen self and think, "Yeah, kid, you were right. Most of the adults in high school were pathetic."

I purchased Speak because of the wry tone and clever wit in the sample pages. I powered through it in just a couple of days because that accessible, humorous voice pervades the story throughout, making it a rare, can't-put-it-down story for me. The writing is filled with too-wise observations like the below:

The orchestra plays an unrecognizable tune. Heather says the school board won't let them perform Christmas carols or Hanukkah songs or Kwanza tunes. Instead of multicultural, we have no-culture.

Melinda, a freshman at Merryweather High School (Home of the Trojans; no, Blue Devils; no, Tigers; no, Wombats, no...,[horny] Hornets!] is by her own admission, an outcast. This hasn't always been the case. Just the year before, she had a close circle of friends. But just that summer, she had attended her first high school party with those friends; something had happened; and Melinda called the cops, who busted up said party and arrested several of the party goers.

Now, she's the school villain, the girl who ruined the fun and got other people arrested, etc.

Of course, Melinda had a damn good reason for calling the cops, but the associated trauma and shame have kept her from explaining what happened. And in the dog-eat-dog culture of high school, her silence and withdrawal only serve to exacerbate the predatory instincts of her classmates.

Melinda isn't just silent about the events of that night, but in fact she has almost entirely stopped speaking altogether. Unlike the protagonist in The Sea of Tranquility , who was utterly (and frankly, unbelievably) silent, Melinda can and does talk. But when confronted with any stressful situation, she shuts down.

Also unlike The Sea of Tranquility, Speak uses humor to effectively bridge the gap between pathos and genuine empathy, creating in Melinda a character who literally spoke to me. I was Melinda. I understand how once your sense of bodily autonomy has been violated, the impulse to become nothing, feel nothing, takes over. And, as the author notes in her comments following the story, Speak is a much about depression as it is about sexual assault.

Melinda's depression is only deepened by the sense that no one is listening, in particular, her parents. Once again, I find myself thinking I should sympathize with her parents more than I do, but...don't. I don't hate them, as I've hated neglectful parents in other books. Melinda's mother, for example, isn't intentionally cruel, but in her frustration (with Melinda's silence), she lashes out in ways that make it all too clear to Melinda that mom can't be trusted with her pain.

As an adult, I don't know what the solution is, how you handle a child who has inexplicably bottled up, her grades are slipping, etc. And yet, I wanted to reach into the pages, shake Mom, and say, "It's not about you, woman. Shut up and really listen to your kid! Better yet, quit obsessing on your job, because in the end, it's really quite meaningless."

Anyway, rather than carry on with the pathos portion of this review, I leave you with another funny, insightful quote:

We pass janitors painting over the sign in front of the high school. The school board has decided that "Merryweather High--Home of the Trojans" didn't sent a strong abstinence message, so they have transformed us into the Blue Devils. Better the Devil you know than the Trojan you don't.