Every once in a while, I enjoy examining some of my favorite YA authors. Laurie Halse Anderson is just one of those authors that slays me with her voice and character construction, and I envy her, look up to her, and just kind of want to be her. Or, as Jack from Will & Grace would say, “Love her. Love everything about her. Thinking about being her for Halloween.”
But seriously, Laurie Halse Anderson deserves so much respect for her insane talent.
In honor of her new YA novel, The Impossible Knife of Memory that comes out tomorrow, Tuesday, January 7th, I thought I’d talk a little bit about my three favorite Laurie Halse Anderson novels, Speak, Twisted, and Wintergirls, and the male characters within them — since I write male characters and I’m fascinated by how guys are represented in YA.
It’s a (Wo)Man’s World
Stereotype: Female writers can’t properly write male characters, at least from a first person perspective, right? Either readers wouldn’t buy into the authenticity of a female writing a male-driven book, or male readers would be turned off from purchasing a book written by a female. Readers can carry prejudices when it comes to the sex of an author, and those prejudices can pigeonhole an author: Can a women writer accurately capture a male voice?
Laurie Halse Anderson, an accomplished young adult author, tends to write books from the perspective of female characters, Speak’s Melinda Sordino and Wintergirls’ Lia Overbrook being two of her most acclaimed novels with talked-about female protagonists. In each of those novels, the main characters are troubled high school-aged girls who are surrounded by male characters that greatly influence them. In each of those books, however, protagonist’s Melinda and Lia are dealing with extremely heavy issues – rape, in the case of Melinda, and a combination of grief-anorexia-cutting for Lia – and their male relationships in each of the books are what drive them; they are believable because Anderson writes each of the male characters that way. Each of the male characters has a purpose to either Lia or Melinda, and they serve different purposes within the text to drive each characters story. Twisted, Anderson’s first male-driven novel is told from the first person perspective of Tyler, a Nerd-to-Greek-God high school outcast, a typical girl-crazy guy who is deeply misunderstood. Like Speak and Wintergirls, Twisted tells the story of an outcast who battles the demons of encroaching adulthood. And like the former, Twisted presents a myriad of different male characters and their relationships to Tyler. In each of the three books, Anderson presents her reader with a common thread of male relationships, either between the main characters and authority figures (guardians, parents, or teachers), or between secondary male characters and the protagonists. The male characters Anderson presents in Speak, Wintergirls, and Twisted are the driving forces of the protagonists, whether negatively or positively. Anderson writes the men in these books to help the protagonists find their voices; to become catalysts; to surprise by turning simple male stereotypes on their heads. Anderson proves that a woman can accurately capture a male voice and perspective, and does so in radically different ways throughout each book; whether a positive or negative portrayal of the male psyche, each male character is authentic.
The Power to Speak
Melinda Sordino is a ninth grade outsider, casted away by her group of friends for calling the cops on a party during the summer before school started. She’s silent. She doesn’t speak much; she just sits in the backseat of her own life, watching her friends make new friends, biting her lip until it scabs and bleeds. She is unable to move forward because of a paralyzing fear. That fear: IT, otherwise known as Andy Evans, the senior boy who raped Melinda at that party over the summer. From the start Speak, it is clear that Melinda is paralyzed by fear, and when it is revealed that she was rape, it is clear that it’s because Andy Evan has a hold on her. Andy Evan’s first mention is on page forty five, right before the end of the first marking period. This is where the reader gets the first clue of Melinda’s demons:
“I see IT in the hallway. IT goes to Merryweather. IT is walking with Aubrey Cheerleader. IT is my nightmare and I can’t wake up. IT sees me. IT smiles and winks. Good thing my lips are stitched together or I’d throw up,” (Speak, 47-48).
This is the first time Melinda actually mentions in inability to truly speak. She had previously tried to talk to her ex-best friend, Rachel/Rachelle, but then she was able to think about talking, and actually try to say something. Here, in the presence of Andy Evans, she’s completely mute. The image of Melinda’s lips being stitched evokes such a horrifying image, that the reader knows something significant happened between her and this boy, IT. He has control over her.
Melinda is trapped between lives, between the life she once knew, and this new one, filled with friends who hate her, a paralyzing fear, where her rapist roams the halls and nobody knows because she’s unable to tell a soul. She can’t even tell her parents. A common thread throughout Anderson’s books is that of the dysfunctional family life, where the mothers are too career-driven to deal with the problems on the home-front, and the fathers are stereotypical male figures, who come home, plop down on the couch and not deal with anything else. The father figures, like the Dad in Speak, aren’t really present. The first time the Dad is presented to the reader in Speak, Melinda is shown at home alone, heating up her own dinner – which is suggested to be ritualistic for her – and it is made clear that she wants to avoid her father at all costs: “I chow and watch TV until I hear Dad’s Jeep in the driveway. Flip, flip, flip – cushions reversed to show their pretty white cheeks, then bolt upstairs. By the time Dad unlocks the door, everything looks the way he wants to see it, and I have vanished,” (Speak, 15). Later, when Melinda goes to work with her father, she is stuffing envelopes when the image of Andy Evans pops into her mind:
“The sharp edge of the flap cuts my tongue. I taste my blood. IT’s face suddenly pops up in my mind. All the anger whistles out of me like I’m a popped balloon. Dad is really pissed when he sees how many calendars I bled on. He mentions a need for professional help,” (Speak, 74).
Instead of asking Melinda what was wrong, her father suggests she get professional help. Its highly unlikely that these parents live in the same household as Melinda, and are witnessing her ever-increasing wounds, both physically and mentally. It seems as if her father doesn’t want to confront any real issues. When Melinda’s parents are called into school, her father blames the school: “‘Well, something is wrong. What have you done to her? I had a sweet, loving little girl last year, but as soon as she comes up here, she clams, skips school, and flushes her grades down the toilet. I gold with the school board president, you know’,” (Speak, 114-115). Here, her Dad knows that she is not speaking up, he knows something had to have happened, but still her doesn’t ask her. He blames the school. On the following page, after the interaction between her parents and the Principal, Melinda actually says “Do they choose to be so dense? Were they bon that way? I have no friends. I have nothing. I say nothing. I am nothing,” (Speak 116). She is crying out for help, and her Dad doesn’t want to realize. It’s not until the spring, toward the end of the novel, when Melinda is outside cleaning out the leaves from the bushes that she is finally able to speak to her father. While he backs the car out of the driveway, he sees her, and stops. He gets out of the car and they begin talking. It’s surface-level at first, but the scene is very symbolic of Melinda’s eventual break-through. Throughout the novel, Melinda’s art teacher had been assigning her the task of drawing a tree to accurately represent herself. She hasn’t been able to up until this particular point in the novel, but in this scene, she is outside, scraping the dead leaves out from the bushes and the trees, and its very symbolic of her cleaning out her own dead leaves, shedding that part of herself. Melinda is a dead tree.
Tree: ‘Hush rustle chitachita shhhh…’
Dad turns to listen to the tree. I’m not sure what to do.
Dad: ‘And that tree is sick. See how the branches on the left don’t have any buds?’” (Speak, 167).
This is a turning point in Melinda’s relationship with her father. He recognizes that she is as dead as the tree, that she is a tree. For the first time, Melinda is able to speak up to her father, thus beginning her rebirth:
“I rake the leaves out of my throat.
Me: ‘Can you buy some seeds? Flower Seeds?’,” (Speak, 168).
Melinda is re-seeding her life, and her father’s recognition gives her the power to begin speaking.
Another male character that helps drive Melinda to be able to speak is David Petrakis, her lab partner. At first she is convinced that he is repulsed by her, like everyone else is, because of her scabby lips, and her outcast demeanor, but Melinda eventually begins to see that he is a friend to her. One of the most eloquent moments in the first half of the novel is in Mr. Neck’s class, during a debate that goes awry. Mr. Neck is trying to stop the class debate because it isn’t going the way he wants it to, and as Melinda admires David’s words, he stands up for the student’s right to speak out: “David stares at Mr. Neck, looks at the flag for a minute, then picks up his books and walks out of the room. He says a million things without saying a word. I make a note to study David Petrakis. I have never heard a more eloquent silence” (Speak, 57). This is the earliest instance we see of someone planting this idea of the necessity of speaking out in Melinda’s mind. David stood up for himself and for others, and when his efforts failed, instead of accepting defeat, he held his head high and walked out of the classroom.
Merryweather High School is the backdrop of most of Speak, a place where Melinda must confront her demons on a daily basis, and a place where she meets the people that eventually help her be able to speak up about what happened to her. From David Petrakis to her art teacher, Mr. Freeman. Freeman, his name a symbol of her potential freedom, encourages her to draw and express herself. “If you don’t learn art now, you will never learn to breathe,” (Speak, 11), Mr. Freeman says on the first day of class. When Melinda is assigned the task of drawing a tree, the intent is to, by the end of the school year, “figure out how to make [the] object say something, express an emotion, speak to every person who looks at it,” (Speak, 12). Mr. Freeman is the only person who senses that Melinda is going through some sort of pain, but instead of asking her to speak out on it, he wants her to express herself through art. By the end, after Melinda confronts Andy Evans, her demon, she is mentally exhausted. But she has admitted the rape out loud and to herself. And when she does, she is able to draw birds on her tree. Once she is able to overcome her fear of speaking, she realizes that she is able to grow.
Andy Evans, her father, David Petrakis, and Mr. Freeman are the driving forces in Speak. They all effect Melinda’s life and her story, whether negatively or positively. But most importantly, none of them are stereotypes of male characters, and it is clear that Anderson has effectively captured male characters and voices that aid the story and represent males in more ways than just as macho-egotistical villains.
Catalysts & Helping Hands
Like Melinda Sordino, Lia Overbrook in Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls is a girl who is desperately fighting demons she cannot seem to conquer over. Throughout the novel, Lia deals with a deadly cocktail of depression, grief, anorexia and cutting. At the start of the novel, Lia has lost her best friend, Cassie, to bulimia, and she blames herself for her death – mostly because she didn’t pick up the phone when Cassie called her the night she died. When her father comes home and offers his condolences to his daughter, it’s clear that Lia and her father don’t have much of a relationship: “He takes a deep breath and pats my shoulder hidden underneath the comforter. ‘We’ll talk later,’ he lies. We never talk. We just pretend to think about talking, and we mention from time to time that one of these days, we really should sit down and talk. It’ll never happen,” (Wintergirls, 35). This quote illustrates the typical absent father relationship, one that is very relatable in young adult literature, where the father is physically present in the household, but not there mentally. Much like Melinda’s father in Speak, Lia’s dad knows that there is a problem (he definitely knows about Lia’s anorexia because that is the reason she is living with him), but he doesn’t make more of a concerted effort to talk his daughter and make sure she’s truly okay.
“Dad promised me a bunch of road trips to make me feel better. We were going to watch the sunrise over the ocean, listen to the Boston Pops, drive up to Canada for a cup of coffee and turn around and drive home. He was so convincing, I really believed him for awhile. But then his editor refused to change his book deadline again and he had to take over a summer session class and we never went anywhere,” (Wintergirls, 51).
Anderson’s books all have a common thread of mentally absent, well-intentioned fathers, who don’t quite know how to help. Lia’s father is a bit more in-the-know than Melinda’s father, and he does truly care about Lia’s situation. For most of the novel, however, he is delusional, defending Lia’s behavior, most likely out of fear of the truth. He leaves his wife, Jennifer, to look after Lia’s well-being, and it’s not until chapter forty-six that the reader really gets a sense of the fathers worries. Anderson wrote the father as a very true-to-life father who only wants the best for his daughter. He has failed, in his own eyes, to protect his daughter, to prevent these demons from attacking his daughter. He knows that Cassie’s fate could easily be Lia’s, but it’s not until her little sister, Emma, witnesses Lia’s intense reaction to laxatives in attempts to purge that her dad steps in to have a real talk with Lia. He attempts to understand what is going on in Lia’s mind, and says that perhaps she should go back to the hospital, and Lia lashes out at him:
“‘You’re never around. Jennifer takes care of everything so you can go to your meetings and the library and your squash games and fancy dinners. Oh, wait a minute – when have I seen this before? Got another girlfriend, Daddy? Ready for round two in divorce court? Don’t forget to line up a good shrink for Emma; she thinks you’re a god’,” (Wintergirls, 213).
Lia is expecting him to yell at her, she’s expecting him to scream and scold her, but instead he says “‘I wish I understood what goes on inside you.’ He tilts the magic wand but doesn’t look at the sparkles. ‘Why you’re so afraid’,” (Wintergirls, 214). This is a catalyst for Lia. Her father, up until that point, has been reserved, on the sidelines, under the radar; he’s left her alone and tried to believe in her own recovery, but she now sees that even he knows that there is a problem. Even though Lia is nowhere near ready to save herself, this exchange between the two of them is a notable one in their relationship, and for the character of the father. Later, when Lia cuts herself to the point of nearly bleeding to death on the bathroom floor in front of Emma, her father puts his foot down and says that she can no longer live in his house. His strength in this action is one of the most chilling moments in the novel, Lia and the reader both know that Emma is the most important person in her life, and the fact that Lia most likely damaged her little sister is heartbreaking for her. Her father thought he could save her, and given the circumstances, if it weren’t for Emma, Lia would probably have been going home with her father. But her father had to make a decision: to do what was best for everyone. Anderson had to have the father step up, for Emma, for Lia, for Jennifer. He knew that he had to protect Emma, the way he didn’t protect Lia and maybe in getting Lia to understand what she did to Emma, he could help Lia understand the gravity of her situation. The father is a complex man, one who is overcome with grief for his daughter, and one who is trying to survive in his new family dynamic. “His voice cracks. He sniffs, swallows hard, and pushes the accelerator until the speedometer’s needle rockets into the red zone. I do not know this man,” (Wintergirls, 229).
The other notable male character who becomes one of the most important catalysts to Lia is Elijah, the man who works at the hotel where Cassie died. For Lia, Elijah is someone who holds answers for her. He is the only one who knew or saw Cassie last, before she died. Elijah is an escape, someone who could maybe help her recover from Cassie’s death, or at least someone she could run away with. When she first meets him, she lies about her name, and the idea of being in the same hotel room where Cassie took her last breaths were too overwhelming for her. But she’s attracted to Elijah’s freedom. To him, she’s not Lia, the anorexic girl who didn’t pick up Cassie’s calls. He doesn’t know her, and that allows her to begin to grow. When the meet again, after Cassie’s wake, he’s the one who gets her to drink hot chocolate in the diner. She begins to get nervous smelling the sumptuous smells of pancakes and French fries and hot chocolates. “‘Keep breathing,’ he orders, his voice a rumble of far-away thunder,” (Wintergirls, 91). He goes on and tells her to open her eyes and just “be still.” She opens her eyes and her demons are gone. This passage on page ninety one-two shows what an influence Elijah is over her. He is a source of calm energy, something new to her. “I am almost a real girl the entire drive home. I went to a diner. I drank hot chocolate and ate French fries. Talked to a guy for a while. Laughed a couple of times. A little like ice-skating for the first time, wobbly, but I did it,” (Wintergirls, 97). This quote almost feels like a promise of something good to come.
When Lia shows up at the hotel at the end of the book, to run with Elijah, this is when Elijah becomes an important catalyst. Up until this point, he had proven to be an escape for Lia, someone to go to who wouldn’t know her problems, who she could laugh and be normal with. It was skillful on Anderson’s part to write him in as a potential love interest, hinting at the idea that maybe Lia was falling for him, the mysterious bad boy. Of course, this is not so. Elijah stays with her as she drifts in and out of consciousness. But she’s relying on him staying with her and taking her with him. When she wakes up and realizes he’s gone, leaving her with nothing but a note saying that he took her money and that she needs more help then he could give. “I know you’re haunted, it’s in your eyes. You have to pay attention to your visions. Deal with them,” (Wintergirls, 263). Superficially, Elijah was Lia’s “last chance” to escape this life. Once he is gone, she has to deal with her health on her own, and this is the gateway to the ending, where she confronts Cassie’s ghost and decides to live.
The male characters in Wintergirls had similar roles as those in Speak. Elijah is similar to David, in the way that David gave Melinda a male friend who wasn’t able to defend himself, Elijah gave Lia the tools to fight her own demons: he forced her to deal with them by not giving her a crutch to lean on. The fathers were both very similar, in that they both know what’s going on, yet they don’t know how to truly help. Not knowing how to proceed seems to be a common occurrence with the men in Anderson’s books. Especially in Twisted, with Tyler and the men in his life. Everybody expects Tyler to man-up, to grow and take responsibility for his actions. He’s expected to become a man, but none of his influences tell him how.
What It Means To Be A Man
Twisted, Laurie Halse Anderson’s first novel narrated from the point of view of a guy, is about Tyler Miller, a guy who, like Lia Overbook and Melinda Sordino, is an outcast at school. Picked on by the most popular guy at school, Chip Milbury (who just so happens to be his father’s bosses son), he is a weak nerd…until he decided to spray paint the school, get arrested and spend the summer doing manual labor. “The hard labor had turned me from Nerd Boy into Tyler the Amazing Hulk, with ripped muscles and enough testosterone to power a nuclear generator,” (Twisted, 2). At first, it’s easy to write this novel off as a stereotype; outcast spends the summer working out and blossoms to come back to school as a muscled God to a life of instant popularity. He has Bethany Milbury (the sister to his rival) drooling all over him, and he spends much of the beginning shirtless and dripping sweat. It’s easy, at first glance, to think Anderson wrote Tyler as a stereotype; something she thought a guy would really be like. Reading further, it’s easy to see that the contrary is true, that Tyler is a very complex character plagued by feelings of loneliness, both at school and at home, who thinks battles feelings of suicide. He just so happens to have a great physical figure.
From the start of the novel, it is clear that Tyler’s father is a typical suit, only worried about impressing his boss than about his son’s well-being. He’d rather not even pick his own son up from school. When describing the party the whole family is going to, his father turns to him and says, “‘Best behavior,’ Dad repeated. ‘Be an asset, not a liability’,” (Twisted, 10). Throughout the novel, it’s clear that his father is only worried about corporate ladder-climbing. He works late, and goes on business trips, leaving Tyler alone to learn how to navigate his newfound manhood himself.
Mystified by the newfound public interest in him, Tyler turns to his sister, Hannah, who tells him how to act. He’s the schools new resident bad boy, and he’s caught the attention of Bethany. Anderson shows Tyler’s inner conflicts as he battles what he thinks he knows about being a man.
“After class, I plowed my way down the hall, feeling the eyes, trying to play Hannah’s game of Hey, I Don’t Give a Rat’s Ass About Any of This, and You Should Be a Little Afraid of Me, Just to Be Safe. It was harder than it sounded, walking like a tough guy and keeping my arms flexed and pretending this was natural,” (Twisted, 50).
Little by little, Tyler’s life becomes more and more governed by his father. His father took away his license when he pulled the Foul Deed on the school, he can’t drive, and he begins to tell Tyler that he can’t go to work anymore because he wants Tyler to pull a full AP course load. Tyler’s increasing frustration and hatred for his father grows. His anger becomes palpable. He tried to stick up for his mother when his father yells at her, but his father ignores him. Everything in Tyler’s life is preventing him from becoming the man he wants so desperately to be. He wants full reign over his life, to be free of the shackles his parents and the law have put him in, from the stereotypical confines his classmates had him trapped in until recently. He wants to be the hero who gets the girl, pummels the bully, and lives happily ever after. But nobody, least of all his father, tells him how to do it.
One of the most surprising moments of the novel was when Tyler is with Bethany at the party, and his sexual overdrive kicks in:
“My brain stopped functioning. My hormones kicked into overdrive and grabbed the steering wheel. I was Wolfman, the Hulk, Casanova, the last man on earth with the last woman, ready and willing and very, very hot. Her lips were warm and sweet, and her breathe was a little nasty, well, that didn’t bother my hard-on one bit. Her hand moved down my chest (yes! yes!) and she pressed herself against me and suddenly my arms were around her and the noise from the party was fading away and my hand traced the curve of her back and I realized that under her fairy leaf skirt she was wearing those tights and under those tights absolutely nothing and then, and then… And then, because I suck, my brain came back to life,” (Twisted, 124).
Tyler realizes that, yes, he does want to have sex with Bethany, but because she is drunk, his conscious tells him that it’s wrong. He stands up for her, and in thinking of her, tells her he doesn’t want to go forward. In terms of being a man, this is the moment where his actions are that of a man. In following his heart and his brain, he does what is morally right.
What follows is a series of unfortunate events for Tyler. He is accused of taking nude photograph’s of Bethany from that night and uploading them to a website. He’s interrogated by the cops, harassed at school, hated on by his sister and his family, and segregated at school. He gets beaten up by Chip Milbury, and is on the brink of total destruction, teetering between thoughts of life and death. He tells himself that he wouldn’t commit suicide unless the worst thing in the world happened. And towards the end of the book, when he seemingly has nobody left, he contemplates and almost commits suicide. He battles coming-of-age questions and ideas, and wonders what it’s like to be a man. Why should he bother trying? So he could become a “man” like his father. One of the most chilling and telling moments comes when Tyler finally decides to kill himself.
“Why bother trying? What was the point? So I could go to some suck-ass college, get a diploma, march out into a job I hated, marry a pretty girl who would want to divorce me, but then she wouldn’t because we’d have kids, so instead she’d become the angry woman at the other end of the kitchen table, and the kids would grow up watching this, until one day I’d look at my son and he’d look just like that face in the bathroom mirror? If that was life, then it was twisted,” (Twisted, 190-191).
Tyler realizes that becoming a man only got his father so far. He doesn’t want to end up in a loveless marriage; a lifeless life, one dedicated to serving others more fortunate than him like Chip Milbury. Why continue forward, why become a man when it will only cause everyone he loves pain? His ideas of being a man are so twisted, and Anderson beautifully captures these ideas and struggles of manhood and coming of age in Tyler Miller.
When Tyler finally confronts his father toward the end (chapters 74-75), he uses his brute force to get his fathers attention. He stands up for himself, for his mother, for their family. He takes a baseball bat and demands his father’s attention. In that moment, Tyler had officially become the man of the house. He was no longer going to accept the blame his father had placed on him. He was no longer going to accept the role he’d been handed. He challenges his father, and his father accepts. “‘Do I blame you?’ The words came out slowly. ‘Absolutely. You loaded the gun and put it in my hand. I blame myself, too. I let you do it.’ I stood up and brushed off my hands. ‘I am not going to military school. And I’m dropping most of my AP classes’,” (Twisted 241). This quote shows that while Tyler is sticking up for himself, he also recognizes that he let his father run his life. He recognizes his own faults, but he also lets his father know the truth. In this instance, he truly enters into manhood. This is the turning point for his relationship with his father. His father is finally able to break through and realize his own faults. He mans up, owning up to his faults, the same way Tyler did when he fought his own suicidal demons. When the dust settles, and Tyler returns home, he and his father are on equal ground. “I let myself break apart and lean all of my weight on him. He held me closer and patted my back like I was a little kid, whispering to me, until we both felt like we could stand on our own. He wiped the tears off my face. I did the same for him,” (Twisted, 248). Laurie Halse Anderson proved that Tyler had become a man by the end of Twisted, and that she could successfully harness the male voice; one so relatable that it resonates well past the turning of the final page. She turned the stereotype of a typical Greek God-esque character on its head, giving Tyler the same care and dimensionality she gave to Lia or Melinda.
The male characters in Speak, Wintergirls, and Twisted were the driving forces of each of the novels. The fathers and secondary male characters in all three books added shades of dimensionality to each of its characters, each helping the narrative drive on to the end. Anderson writes the men in these books to help the protagonists find their voices; to become catalysts; to surprise by turning simple male stereotypes on their heads. It speaks to Anderson’s skill as a writer to be able to write male characters with such varying shades of gray and personality. From the suave slickness of a rapist, to an absent father, to a free-spirited art teacher, to a misunderstood guy who only wants to become a man.