Sunday, October 3, 2010

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

**HUGE spoilers, but only if you haven't followed the recent controversy.**

Well, I missed Banned Books Week by one day. And besides, I don't spend a lot of time protesting censorship. Censorship has been proven self-defeating again, and again, and again. Way back before the internet, banned books had a way of getting to those who wanted to read them--now, the process is almost instantaneous.

Case in point: if Dr. Wesley Scroggins had not included Speak among his examples of "filthy books", I for one would never have read the novel (under my Intellectual Honesty Rule, which says that if I want to discuss a book I must read it first). Many other people were likewise inspired to read the book, with the result that sales have seen a nice, healthy spike. Er--yay censorship?

Before I head into the review, though, I want to tackle the controversy. First, I want to note that the other two examples given by Scroggins, Slaughterhouse Five and Twenty Boy Summer (neither of which I have read) seem to have remained undefended and, according to the editor's note at the end of Scroggins' article, Slaughterhouse Five was withdrawn from the curriculum and Twenty Boy Summer was "being reviewed". Which implies that someone, somewhere, may have actually read those books and found them a little strong for the age group for which this particular curriculum was destined.

Before you get all defensive about these two books, let me just say this: I never censor anything my own teenagers read, but neither would I force them to read any particular book. Putting books on a curriculum effectively forces the children to read them, and should be a careful choice. Unless the school actually removed copies of the books from the library and took measures to prevent teachers from recommending them to students, they were not "banning" them: they were giving their students the choice about whether they read them. That is not suppression.

Now let's fast-forward to the Rejectionist's post that caused the Intellectual Honesty Rule to kick in because I got involved in the discussion (I'm not going to use this forum to justify my opposition to the Rejectionist's post; read the comments if you care about that). The R's post was a response to this nicely balanced defense of Speak, with which I concur wholeheartedly. Now that I've read the book AND Dr. S's post AND reread the Rejectionist's, I need to point out that she (R) quoted Dr. S's remarks on Slaughterhouse Five and Twenty Boy Summer in a way that implies that he (Dr. S.) was talking about Speak. Naughty, naughty. With great blog popularity comes great responsibility, Rejectionist.

And now to Speak. Dr. S's exact words on this novel were:

In high school English classes, children are required to read and view material that should be classified as soft pornography.

One such book is called "Speak." They also watch the movie. This is a book about a very dysfunctional family. Schoolteachers are losers, adults are losers and the cheerleading squad scores more than the football team. They have sex on Saturday night and then are goddesses at church on Sunday morning. The cheer squad also gets their group-rate abortions at prom time. As the main character in the book is alone with a boy who is touching her female parts, she makes the statement that this is what high school is supposed to feel like. The boy then rapes her on the next page. Actually, the book and movie both contain two rape scenes.

Bear those (yes, badly written) words in mind as I FINALLY get to the review. Moonrat, you really shouldn't have given me that 60,000 word limit.

Speak tells the story of Melinda, who begins her freshman year at high school with none of her former friends speaking to her because she called the police to a summer party. As she observes the cliques and teachers and her grades slip ever lower, we learn the reason for the call; she was raped at the party. Her parents are too absorbed in their jobs to interpret her changed personality as anything other than teenage bolshiness, and she is too paralyzed by shame and fear to speak out in her own defense.

This is a beautifully written novel, and far from being "pornography" it's intensely moral. And quite frankly, one of the cleaner YA novels I've seen (not that my experience is broad). There's no swearing, the kids are really pretty well behaved, and the subject of the rape doesn't even come up until two-thirds of the way into the story. And then it's heartrending; the transition of the dream-come-true of being asked to dance by a gorgeous senior boy into a nightmare (with absolutely no graphic description of any kind) is so sparely written that it leaves many horrible things to the imagination and allows the reader to insert her own 13-year-old self (or in my case, worse still, my daughters) into the scene.

The resolution of the story is tightly written, restrained and free from any kind of sentimentality, and I just loved it. The only point on which I agree with Dr. S. is that the parents, teachers and all adult figures of authority are portrayed as complete losers; maybe it's just giving the teenage point of view, but I get rather tired of the "Cinderella syndrome" where all adults are either absent or idiots and it's left to the kids to save the day. Believe it or not, folks, there are some pretty good parents and teachers out there, and young readers might benefit from the occasional adult hero.

When I mentioned Speak to my youngest daughter, I discovered that she'd been assigned the book in 7th grade. If anything, I would worry that this novel fitted in to our own school districts' apparent attempt to scare our kids off sex completely. OK, this is probably a slightly more responsible attitude than the way my generation was encouraged to "do it if it felt good," but how about we work on a middle ground here?

Bottom line: I was left cheering for Melinda and for Laurie Halse Anderson. Wish I'd written this book.

Oh yeah--and absolutely the best cover art I have seen for a long time. A totally brilliant interpretation of the book. Yow.


sideline jelly said...

I used this book this last year in a dissertation on sexual trauma.
I couldn't connect with Melinda at all to begin with, but by the second reading I couldn't help marvelling at the subtlety and playfullness of Halse Anderson's language. I love the way she uses humour. So quotable :)

Ashley said...

I think LHA is just a brilliant writer. I've read most of what she's come out with, and I can't help but marvel at how well LHA writes her characters.

With regards to the parent/adults being absent comments, I must add that although her parents are wrapped up in their own problems, her art teacher IS there for her, and does make a point of trying to reach out to Melinda. He IS that one adult that reaches out and begins to make a difference for Melinda, which I think is actually more accurate than having every adult in her life suddenly concerned with her well being. In my experience, it is that ONE teacher who makes the difference, or who notices that your silence or whatnot actually stems from a deeper problem than just teenaged angst.