Recently, I’ve been reading more Laurie Halse Anderson novels faster than I can review them. All in all, I’ve powered through four of her novels within a three week time span, which has left me feeling accomplished in the sense that I’m completing a writer’s collected works and simultaneously stressed because I’m now faced with the prospect of four novels to review.
Let’s start with Speak, the novel that introduced me to Laurie Halse Anderson. Speak is to Laurie Halse Anderson as Citizen Kane is to Orson Wells, namely, it’s her breakthrough masterpiece—the novel that she will always be known for, the title that will accompany her name in all her future publications. Speak was a Printz Award Honor book and a New York Times Bestseller. Did Speak deserve all the critical acclaim and reader hoopla? That’s what I was aiming to find out when I checked it out. Consensus: it did.
It’s the first day of school and freshman Melinda Sordino is already an outcast. She has no friends, no place to sit in the cafeteria, and nobody to talk to. In fact, Melinda is the most despised person in school; she’s a rat, a narc. She called the cops at the end-of-summer party, leading to the arrest of several popular members of the student body. But what was she to do? She was scared: a senior had raped her… Now, there’s freshman year to get through and Melinda no longer speaks.
I assumed that Speak was going to be depressing and angst-filled, which it was, but I never expected it to be uplifting and I certainly never expected to be blindsided by such an onslaught of dry humor and keen insight that I found myself chuckling, laughing, and mentally saying “that’s so true!”
I admit: I tend to avoid depressing novels. My high school years were depressing enough, so why revisit old demons? But I found myself drawn into Melinda’s world and rooting for her to come out of that janitor’s closet, trim her long bangs, and make it through freshman year. I even found myself relating to her, though my freshman year, although awkward, sad, and introverted, was in no way as horrendous as her year in adolescent hell. However, I know a thing or two about being silent and not feeling like talking. I was the quiet girl in school (freshman year-junior year) and even though many people associated my silence with shyness, in actuality, I was just plain sad. Think of me as the teenage Desperate Housewives-type sad: happy on the outside, crumbling on the inside. I never wrote just-shoot-me poetry or treaded into Goth waters, never tinkered with the Emo lifestyle or listened to whiny alternative music. I was a straight arrow, a silent, laconic girl. I won multiple awards. But talking? No talking for me.
What’s the point in speaking? Getting the words out took immense effort. Shrug it off, remain silent, and take long naps.
Long naps are dangerous. Melinda was prone to naps. She wasn’t interested in joining clubs, playing sports, or hanging out with friends because they got in the way of her after-school nap time. It almost felt like she was stumbling around freshman year as a sleepwalker and it was painful to watch her life spiraling out of control. Whenever I recall long after-school naps, I shudder. It’s nice to take a nap when you are tired and want to feel refreshed, but when you’re perpetually tired every day and the only thing you’re looking forward to after-school is napping, you’re in danger of falling off the edge. I wouldn’t say that I was that depressed in high school, but oh how I understand the secret meaning of naps. That’s why I was so happy when Melinda finally stopped feeling tired; she’s awakened!
At the end of every quarter, we see Melinda’s report card. With the exception of her art class, Melinda’s grades deteriorate. Her counselors are on her case, her parents nag her and then nag each other. Melinda says nothing.
Okay, I have a confession. Grades still get to me. I cringed at Melinda’s D and F filled report card. I’m the opposite of Melinda, my high school years could be summed up as “I was so depressed that I became valedictorian.” Grades were the only thing I could control, so I made sure I had the best grades. I don’t think I was trying to become anything; call me a robot mechanically doing my homework and acing my tests because they were distractions and kept me from thinking about the void. Keeping my A’s in a straight line bought some semi-balance of order into my so-called life; it was the only thing that gave me an identity. Otherwise, who am I? (I’ll get into the philosophy of perfection, college admissions, and report card grades when I review Laurie Halse Anderson’s Catalyst).
In the book, Melinda was trying to construct a tree in art class. She used multiple mediums—paint, clay, granite—but she could never create the perfect tree, the tree within her mind, the tree that represented the struggle inside of her.
Although my medium was different, I understand that tree.
Whoa, maybe I should take this blog’s link off my Facebook. Wouldn’t it be awkward if my high school friends read this? You mean being valedictorian didn’t make you happy? Answer: no one is happy when they are on a pedestal.
But I’m happy now. I’m comfortable with myself. I’m no longer perfect, which is what is making me so happy. I also remember quite vividly what it’s like to be a teen, which is why I have a tremendous respect for what teenagers have to go through. I don’t regret that awkward freshman year, it allowed me to appreciate how critical it was for Melinda to make that tree grow.