“Everyone knows Chelsea Knot doesn’t know how to keep her mouth shut.”
So then which holds more power: words or silence? Chelsea Knot dives into both throughout Hannah Harrington’s Speechless, wrecking the pecking order at Grand Lake High. For fear of losing her seemingly precarious social standing with queen-bee and best-frenemy Kristen, Chelsea finds herself table-dancing drunk at a conveniently unchaperoned New Year’s Eve party. The night of Jell-O shots and basketball players takes a turn when Chelsea opens the master suite door only to find Noah Beckett. With another guy. A hurricane of homophobic slurs and threats ends the night once Chelsea gushes to the room of beer-chugging popular kids.
Chelsea’s turmoil swells after saying too much by both divulging Noah’s now-public sexual preference and ratting out the basketball players who put him in a coma. Subsequent pressure from all fronts for honesty and loyalty spurs Chelsea’s new project: a vow of silence. This proves to be the least of her worries upon returning to school. Shut out in favor of a new class of Plastics, Chelsea finds herself the target of vulgar locker decorations, cold shoulders, detentions for lack of participation in class, and—most importantly—a fateful art project pairing with Noah’s best friend, Sam.
Harrington accurately gets high school. This novel reads smoothly because it ensnares the readers in a familiar world of high school and satiates their expectations for Chelsea’s tale of love and silence. From the “silent hand signals and elbow nudging” to surreptitiously find project partners to the enthusiastic art teacher /mentor who wishes Chelsea spiritual enlightenment, Chelsea’s school life comes alive. All of this comes through with the kind of crisp vocabulary that caffeinates the characters and gives them the energy for sustained, witty conversations.
Along the way, Chelsea finds herself taken in by her detention comrade Asha, art-class partner and tuna melt connoisseur Sam, and their coworkers at the local Rosie’s Diner. Just quirky enough to be both interesting and relatable, these selfless, sunny characters serve as foils to Chelsea’s snark and self-centeredness until she takes the time to observe the world around her rather than talk about it. Chelsea’s new community shows her that she cannot arrogantly presume to be the solution, especially not by insincerely apologizing. Chelsea challenges her silence, as do those around her, making a potentially clichéd resolution as satisfying as Rosie’s late-night diner food. When Chelsea will choose to speak again remains the central question throughout the novel, almost long enough that her silence becomes familiar, since the reader knows so little of the days before her whiteboard became her voice. The moment Chelsea reclaims her voice shows her complete faith in a conclusion she shares with most young adult protagonists (you should be yourself and spend time with others who do the same and love you for it), but even if you know what you’re about to read, you still can’t wait to read it.
Chelsea’s prolonged self-centered streak keeps her honest and relatable, as if the fact that the reader sees her skewed motivations makes this final realization a little bit more of her own achievement. Her one or two-word narrative conclusions to paragraphs (as pithy as “Ass.” or “Obviously.”) lend her sassy persona more credibility. Declarations like “Mrs. Finch can suck it” seem so pointed amongst her other observations, while at the same time consistent with the character. Her days seem interminably long thanks to the chapter divisions, rife with new experiences, pranks, and reconsiderations of whether or not she has indeed made the right choices. Harrington flawlessly keeps the reader grounded in Chelsea’s world, keeping the audience in tow step by step towards regaining her voice.
Although Chelsea pulls her idea for a vow of silence from National Geographic, Harrington based it off of the National Day of Silence, a yearly event to acknowledge anti-LGBTQ bullying and harassment in schools. Through Chelsea’s borrowed personal-sized whiteboard, notes, and text messages, the rules bend a little bit in terms of what communication she allows herself. As she counters Sam’s queries along the same lines, “My vow, my rules.”
What seems odd at first is that a novel that touches on LGBT issues as the primary plot complication could be focalized through a hopelessly heterosexual protagonist. Chelsea’s silence turns her into a symbol of the silence so many face, as if Harrington picked to convey Grand Lake’s world through the eyes of someone realizing the effects of homophobia and hatred.
However, it seems important that many points resembling a lapse on the author’s part actually create a more sophisticated take on this topic. Chelsea’s unresolved consternation regarding why Brendon would head a new Gay/Straight Alliance doesn’t leave him categorically sorted into either camp. Noah himself “blends in with the crowd” before Chelsea notices him for the first time at Kristen’s party. This time away from worn refrains about the hardships teenage homosexuals face allows for greater character depth and complexity, ultimately creating greater insight into an issue caused by a great focus on labels than on individuals.
Harrington subtly carries us through the two commonly portrayed conventions of high school life: the one full of quirky, lovable people who dance around a hole-in-the-wall diner in their spare time, and the Mean Girls world of hating your best friend and constantly seeking to be “amused and scandalized.” Not surprisingly, this YA novel is the story of a teenage girl discovering herself, love, and friendship. Surprisingly, this switch doesn’t happen on a fulcrum so much as a revolving door, allowing Chelsea plenty of time to both rediscover what she actually likes for herself and start off slow in the process to being nicer and most honest with others.
Each word holds the weight of compensating for a largely-silent narrator. As Chelsea works to rediscover her voice, after a vow of silence and apart from her previously domineering social circle, Harrington highlights the importance of words in the potential for both gossip and silence to bring harm.