Book Review: Speechless by Hannah Harrington

Hannah Harrington
Harlequin Teen, August 2012
ISBN 978-0-373-21052-7
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

Everyone knows that Chelsea Knot can’t keep a secret

Until now. Because the last secret she shared turned her into a social outcast—and nearly got someone killed.

Now Chelsea has taken a vow of silence—to learn to keep her mouth shut, and to stop hurting anyone else. And if she thinks keeping secrets is hard, not speaking up when she’s ignored, ridiculed and even attacked is worse.

But there’s strength in silence, and in the new friends who are, shockingly, coming her way—people she never noticed before; a boy she might even fall for. If only her new friends can forgive what she’s done. If only she can forgive herself.

Back in the old days, when I was a teenager, bullying was a rare thing in the public schools I attended. That’s not to say cruelty to others didn’t exist but it took a much quieter form, that of dismissal. There were three distinct social groups. The top rung was the popular kids, the “pretty ones”, the jocks and their friends, and they simply ignored the existence of everyone beneath them. The lowest group was a collection of hoods (black leather, no weapons, maybe a little marijuana), nerds (although I don’t think that specific term existed then), economically deprived, shop classers, those bound for blue-collar jobs after graduation. Everybody else fell into the middle stratum, generally those who were college-bound and sociable, on an economic level with the top group but not accepted into the inner circles. Essentially, all three groups cohabited nicely during classes but not in the halls or outside the school grounds. Even with such distinct lines drawn, though, the three groups didn’t actively try to make life miserable for each other. We managed to get along because people “knew their places”.

Today’s world is much different for teens and middle-graders and bullying is visible and frequently vicious, whether it’s physical, verbal or emotional. Physical appearance is a common cause and I can’t help thinking that our love affair with TV, movies and celebrities has fed that particular worm.  Sexual orientation is another major platform and I believe that has become more of a bullying issue as society has changed and LGBT kids are less likely to hide than they used to be. If there were LGBT kids in my schools, I never knew it, and I had known many of my fellow students since first grade. That lack of knowledge is not a good thing, just different from today’s atmosphere.

Author Hannah Harrington has taken an all-too-common problem and expanded it. In Speechless, the victim is not just the gay teen who is exposed and subsequently attacked, it’s also the girl from the highest echelons who not only outed Noah but then turned in the jocks who beat him to the police. Her betrayal of her circle is what they find unforgiveable, not the hate crime itself. Chelsea starts out as a shallow girl whose interests lie in shopping, gossip, partying, and being BFF to the top girl in school but, for some reason, a spark of real decency exists in her. Her vow of silence is at first rather quixotic, an escape from reality, but could it become the means of her salvation?

Chelsea is a complex character, much like a teen in real life, and it’s a pleasure to follow her search for redemption, her journey to maturity. Along the way, the reader meets some people it would be a delight to know and they’re well-rounded with problems of their own while being very appealing individuals, Asha and Sam in particular. Even some of the bullies have the occasional mitigating aspect which surely is the case outside the realm of novels. Ms. Harrington presents a storyline and all its side issues that grips the reader from the very beginning and her characters bring it to life. I wish that any teen in a position of power over others would read Speechless and perhaps gain a little insight into how that power can be misused.

One last note—kudos to the publisher for such a great cover. Think about it. Speechlessness can lead to invisibility, can’t it?

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2012.