Monday, April 29, 2019

The Tree of Life Freshman Year

 Review and analysis of Laurie Halse Anderson's novel Speak...
as part of my graduate coursework in Young Adult Literature. 


To go from a book that gets so many things so wrong to a book that gets everything right is a pure delight. This is what Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak did for me. It's a title I've heard a lot about over the years but left alone. I am better for having read it. Melinda's story is timeless and so it Anderson's writing. As heavy as its story, Melinda's big secret, can get, this book is hilarious. Melinda Sordino's narrative voice is one of the strongest I have ever read, in fact. There is so much hope in her.

I was taken certainly with the tree metaphor that runs through the novel. Speak is a novel of growth, and it takes that as its central motif, that Melinda should be a budding artist working with how best to express herself and struggling to create her tree. The scene where she clears the dead leaves from the flower beds outside her house, connecting her to her father, stands out to me. I rejoiced at the line he gives her, upon following her lead and hiring a tree service to care for their oak tree: "By cutting off the damage, you make it possible for the tree to grow again. You watch--by the end of the summer, this tree will be the strongest on the block." This is a book that is good at getting things right. A Dad would say this. A Dad would not even know the implications of such a statement. That is the gift of this narrative.

But this is all about Melinda's voice and her inability to say what damage has been done. The quiet life of a freshman nobody, unable to make/keep friends, lost in a sea of adolescence with hardly any guidance. Freshman year is the worst. It was certainly my worst year of school, and this book even gets that right. It gets it through Heather, the girl from Ohio and Melinda's only friend for much of the novel (and not a very good one), who so badly wants to join a group. It gets it through Melinda's sharp wit and her untrained athletic ability. It gets the whole year, all four quarters, every grade report hitting us with a bang. It gets teachers. It gets principals and guidance counselors. It gets parents. It gets snow days, or lack of. It gets lab partners and nice people. It gets bad people, worse people, horrible people. It gets down to the very heart of why victims of sexual assault feel the need to be silent.

On Cultural Discourse, Psychoanalytic Feminism, and Cutting off the Dead


Adolescents experience trauma. Fact. And they have to figure out how to deal with it. Roberta Trites, in her chapter on Death in Disturbing the Universe hits on this in a discussion of the "unflinching" look at the violent death of Bob and the horribly sad death of Johnny in The Outsiders, the idea that "the reader is not protected from either death by the filter of indirect narration" (120). I love that about that book. I don't love that about This is Where It Ends. The action movie sensationalism ruined that. Hinton wrote death with subtlety and true pain. The latter's hyperactive violence was just too messy and unfocused to be felt personally. It is just horror. Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak sort of makes its bones on exactly what Trites speaks against. It is a novel that keeps the villain at bay, like Spielberg's Jaws, only giving us glimpses of his havoc until a moment of immense personal and climactic violence. It is about misdirection and fragmentation and an unwillingness of a trauma victim, a freshman girl raped by a monstrous entitled older boy at a party, to speak out. Anderson holds us back until Melinda is ready, and that is what this book ends up being about: what it takes to cut off a part of you that has died and work this life until it grows back.

Cultural discourses are everything within Melinda's fragmented narrative, her subjective voice. High school as a discourse indeed is part of what distracts Melinda from understanding what happened to her, and it is also a dominating place, an institution that can make even the strongest of us silent at times. To connect to Kate's presentation on New Historicism, the lens of Melinda's subjective voice shows us the highly comedic, ridiculous, scary experience of high school as a way of detouring the hard nature of what the narrative is building towards. I think of the Ferris Bueller-esque introduction of cliques or "clans" (4), all those groups, cleverly named, coming at you in the cafeteria, forcing you into isolation or total committal. I think of how much, I, as a reader wanted Melinda to join the basketball team. She's a free throw phenom and can't realize she needs that team and its discourse. Sports, as an institution, exercise itself, it can save people. I think of a connection to Hillary's discussion of gender with an early note on the horrible parts of our society's sexual dynamic, when she sees Nicole, a powerful athlete, undressing after gym class: "If you're that strong, you don't care if people make comments about your boobs or rear end" (18). What sad misconceptions pervade the teenage discourse of sex and gender roles, back in 1999, still today.

As Kate reminded us, Melinda's story, like so many victims' stories, is a gap. The power structure of society, of high school, has forced her down to where she even questions if Andy raped her at all. I think about Jennifer's question to me earlier in this thread. How would you deal with this book in your classroom without isolating/exposing students working through a similar trauma, still afraid to speak? I think I have an answer: I would tell remind any reader of this book to see the good in it. Hillary asked us how we see gender roles challenged in this novel. This is where Melinda's healing process comes alive. I think of the tree Melinda is trying to mend together throughout, both through her artistic expression and the real one she wants to save. I think of the male characters in this book, two branches that must go and two branches that will replace and renew the life in her tree.

Mr. Neck, her social studies teacher, is the worst kind. He is arrogant and disrespectful and staunchly opposed to giving hist students a voice, even punishing Melinda for not even having that. Andy Evans is a monster, entitled by a society that prefers the all-American male to the odd girl trying to escape her own skin. The scene where he comes up to her and whispers/blows in her ear is the most vile thing I've read this semester. Here is a book that chooses to reduce its monster to being the monster he is, not allowing him a single moment of airtime. These two men have to go. Chop them off and make room for the new and good. Mr. Freeman is the kind of teacher we would all love, even if you, like me, can't art. He listens to even the most silent of his students, Melinda. He sees her and reminds her to tap her emotions for good: "...don't think about trees. Think about love, or hate, or joy, or rage--" (122). There is also David Petrakis Lab Partner, the boy I really hope Melinda takes a date with, the Ivy League bound and truly charming gem of a young man lauded for taking down The Neck and empowering the voice of all of his classmates. These two male characters are beacons for good in her life, ultimately overpowering Melinda to come out of the shadow created for her. The book believes that evil can be balanced, even overcome, by good. That is a good, the best, thing. And there is one more man who takes it over the top for the good side.

Melinda's father is surely a silent type and not always engaged and helpful, as Hillary pointed out. But I latched onto him so strongly in the end. (Perhaps because I'm a new Dad. I just feel so closely identified with that part of myself these days.) He seals up the victory for good. Trites, in discussing death in YA Literature, calls attention to a key point about the death of anything, any part of you, not only death as a finality. She writes of Jo, in Little Women, and how she deals with her grief by acknowledging the pain and being aware of her mortality. Melinda learns to do this as well, and, of all people, it is her Dad who helps her get there. He encourages her want to clean up the mess that years of winters have left on their front yard. He tells her about cutting off the dead and making room for a stronger, better life. May all men, fathers of daughters or not, learn to support the efforts of the women in their lives. May we hear them, even if they can't speak.

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