Laurie Halse Anderson’s award-winning novel Speak, tells the story of Melinda Sordino who was raped at a party before the book opens. While subject matter-wise this is not a book for younger readers, it talks about important subjects in frank, realistic terms without becoming graphic. I would encourage book upper-grade and middle-grade readers to check this one out.
The summer before her freshman year of high school, Melinda and her friends are invited to a high school party where she gets drunk and separated from her friends, and a senior by the name of Andy Evans takes her to a secluded part of the woods and attacks her. After, Melinda calls the cops and the party is broken up, but she doesn’t tell anyone what happened. So when the story opens on the first day of high school, Melinda is a social outcast, dumped by her friends for “ratting” to the police. Alone, and battling her unspoken trauma, she falls into depression and silence. But slowly, with some unknowing help from her lab partner and a caring art teacher, she begins to face her demons, including Andy Beast himself.
While adults everywhere urge girls to come forward if they are ever attacked, Melinda’s reaction, while not ideal, is certainly understandable. I hate to say it, but it’s also realistic. She is intoxicated, confused, and scared, and when she wakes up in the morning, she wants nothing more than to forget it even happened. She not only doubts whether her testimony will stand up in court, she doubts her own foggy memory. It is easier in some ways to keep quiet and out of sight. Though eventually she does reveal what happened, she doesn’t regret hiding it for so long. For her, it was about gaining the courage to speak when she was ready, and her message is about that internal strength rather than the righteous quest for justice.
I think that message is incredibly important for girls to read. Instead of trying to offer a catch-all path for rape victims, Melinda’s story supports the individual choices of the victims themselves, in doing what they need to get right with it, and taking their time. While she is a strong character, it isn’t her confrontation with Andy or her decision to reveal the attack that is important. It is her own journey from confusion into depression, and out the other side into a normal life again.
In the way that Shark Girl wasn’t about learning to be normal again, but rather to find a new definition of normal, so too is Speak. It was made into a relatively decent movie by the same name a few years ago, and starring a young (and surprisingly likable) Kristen Stewart, which is also worth seeing.