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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Why Laurie Halse Anderson's _Speak_ reminds me of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

     Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak has become a kind of a modern classic, but I haven't ever gotten around to reading it until this morning.  And I have to say it reminds me a lot of Lord of the Rings. 
     Not, of course, in terms of the story.  You will find no hobbits, dwarves, elves, or ringwraiths here.  Melinda does not have a magic ring or reforged sword to fight evil with.  And Speak certainly isn't written as a fantasy, rather it is suburban realism.  No, instead the similarity has to do with hope.
     In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Frodo Baggins, a hobbit, is given what seems an impossible task -- to hike across what seems like thousands of miles of enemy territory to destroy an incredibly powerful enchanted ring.  Whole armies of terrible creatures are arrayed against him -- and as he journeys on, the chances that he will succeed seem to grow smaller and smaller.  Toward the end of the last book, the hope that Frodo can fulfill his task and save the world becomes the tiniest spark.
     But that spark is always there.
     In Speak, Melinda is beginning high school under nearly impossible conditions.  The summer between middle school and high school, she was invited to a party, and we are told that she called the cops on the party.  As a result, the group of friends she has grown up with has not only deserted her, but are actively working to ruin her life.  On the first day of school, a kid upends his lunch all over her, gaining her exactly the wrong kind of attention.  As the story goes on, it becomes clear that Melinda is deeply trouble by something in her past, but also that her teachers (with the exception of her art teacher) go from being allies to enemies, that her parents are so caught up in their own squabbles and the challenges of their lives that they offer no comfort, and finally that her only friend is more interested in becoming popular than in listening to what she might have to say.  Melinda starts to shut down, to withdrawal, to hurt herself, and to sink into depression and self loathing. 
     But, though hope seems to be fading, there is always at least a spark.   She finds hope when her science partner stands up to their bigoted history teacher, when her art teacher doesn't give up on her, and even when a message she scrawls on a bathroom stall shows her that she is not alone.
     In Lord of the Rings, things stay desperate almost to the very end.  In Speak, the turn comes in the final couple of pages.  And maybe I am showing my over-sentimentality here, but I would argue that it is an ending worth waiting for -- even though in the end of both books we are left not with a perfect restoration of a perfect world, but rather with a bright shining window of hope thrown open, instead of a tiny spark shining through a keyhole.  It is a satisfying story to read.

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