by Laurie Halse Anderson
Where It All Goes Down
Merryweather High School in Syracuse, New York
Speak is set in Syracuse, New York. This location is most significant because of the weather, which Melinda Sordino is very tuned in to. Her journey back to life after being raped is reflected in the seasons. Melinda grows more and more brittle, fragile, and cold through the long Syracuse winter. But when spring and summer come, she thaws and grows, just like a tree.
Other than that, we get the feeling that Speak could be happening anywhere, and that's probably the point. We suspect that Anderson wants us to feel like Melinda's experience isn't unique to girls in one specific area – it could, and does, happen everywhere. Similarly, exact dates aren't listed, giving it an anytime-feel. It probably takes place in the late 1990s, since the book was first published in 1999.
Much of Speak happens in that scary place most of us have to go to at some point. If we are lucky, we get out alive with our sanity intact.
Yep, we're talking about high school, the place writers love to pick on. If you have bad experiences in high school, consider a career as a writer. We've seen Merryweather-like high schools many times before: as Neptune High in Veronica Mars, as Trinity in Robert Cormier's The Chocolate Wars, and as Ewen High School in Stephen King's first published novel, Carrie, to name just a few.
Merryweather, like Neptune, has bright spots. The brightest spot of all is Mr. Freeman's art class. Here, Melinda is nourished – she learns about art, about dedication to a work of art, and about her own feelings. Science class is also important to Melinda. Through that class she gets to know her almost-love interest, David Petrakis, teen genius. In science class, she also learns about how trees and plants grow. (Check out "Style" for a look at how Melinda uses the metaphor of a sprouting seed to help her envision her own renewal and recovery from the rape.)
In fact, even though Melinda often skips school, she uses something from all of her classes to help her solve the problem she works on throughout her freshman year: whether or not to talk about her rape. In spite of the flaws of Merryweather, Melinda is ultimately getting an intense and rewarding education and learning how to negotiate a world where some people really do have bad intentions.
So, how about you? How does your high school experience, or your idea of the high school experience, compare with Melinda's? Does Speak provide a realistic view of high school? Why, or why not?
The closets in Speak have a double meaning. They are places of contemplation and safety, but also of isolation and terror. The empty supply closet at school provides Melinda with a place to reflect on her artwork and her life, take naps, vent her emotions, and hide from mean people at school. When she feels that Andy Evans has been exposed as a predator to the student body, she decides she doesn't need the closet. She thinks, "I don't feel like hiding anymore" (88.1).
Part of why she's ready to stop hiding is because she thinks that she's safe from Andy now that other people know he's a predator. She forgets that Andy still hasn't been reported to anybody who can actually stop him, and that he might just want revenge on her for talking.
Ironically, Andy corners Melinda in the closet just when she's trying to move out of it. The closet then becomes the site of her transformation from speechless, powerless victim to powerful woman who fights off her attacker and gains control.
Now, how about Melinda's closet at home? Does she hide in it for the same reasons she hides in the one at school, or are her reasons different?
Lady of Mercy Hospital
One day when Melinda is skipping school, she falls asleep on the bus and ends up at Lady of Mercy Hospital. Melinda thinks, "In a sick way, I love [the hospital]" (54.2). After touring the hospital, and tasting the food, Melinda sneaks a hospital gown and fantasizes about falling asleep in a hospital bed in the adult surgery wing.
We admit it. This moment makes us run for the tissues. The hospital setting and Melinda's attraction to it highlights her vulnerability, her extreme need, and her willingness to do whatever it takes to get well. As we read that scene, we keep hoping somebody will find her and help her.
Instead, Melinda surprises us with some serious toughness after she sees a wounded man on a stretcher. She thinks, "There is nothing wrong with me. These are really sick people. Sick that you can see" (54.9). Now, we aren't saying this toughness is healthy for Melinda. Her toughness, in this case, is another version of her not being able to ask for what she needs. It also shows that she doesn't even think she deserves help or relief. The hospital highlights the fact that for Melinda, at this point in the story, mercy and relief and care are out of reach.
The Rodgers Farm
The Rodgers Farm isn't far from Melinda's subdivision. It's the site of the end-of-the-summer party where Andy Evans rapes Melinda. It's also where Melinda loses all her friends when she tries to call the police to report the assault. Melinda's trip to the spot where she was raped seems important to her healing process. Although the trip is spontaneous, she's spent her freshman year preparing for it. It takes courage to face the fears and the loss the spot symbolizes. Her "heart thuds" and her "hands shake" (85.11) as she approaches the place.
At the same time, she realizes that the spot itself is innocent and "normal," even pleasant. She thinks, "You could bring a kindergarten class here for a picnic" (85.11). She transforms the place from a site of horror to a place where answers and renewal can be found. When she touches the tree, the silent witness to the crime against her, she tries to read it like "a Braille code" (85.12).
The tree is important to the setting because it shows how Melinda is turning to the natural world to help her solve her human problems. This identification with nature helps her see herself as natural and capable of growth, rather than alien and ruined. (For more on Melinda and trees, see "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory.")