I was five foot nine in fifth grade. Not quite twelve years old, I towered above my teachers, friends, and crushes. They hid me at the back of every class photo, probably protecting the parents from the two inches of ankle that always peeked out of my jeans, and at bat mitzvahs the other kids would push me towards the shortest boy in our class, Adam Fishman, because we looked funny when we danced together.
I was embarrassed by my height, and so I slouched. I turned concave, crossing my arms over my chest and craning my neck to the ground. I even pulled my hair back in a ponytail in an effort to take up less space.
Just like us, our characters have their slouches. They have their habits, tics, and quirks that have bloomed through a lifetime of being shoved in the back of class photos. As Francine Prose says in Reading Like a Writer, “Properly used gestures…are like windows opening to let us see a person’s soul, his or her secret desires, fears or obsessions, the precise relations between that person and the self, between the self and the world” (213). According to Prose, my slouch could be interpreted as a manifestation of my desire to blend in. It reveals my fear of being different, of standing out, of being noticed.
Many of the gestures Prose discusses in her text are one-off movements: clenching fists, lighting a cigarette, taking off a hat. (209-213) But my slouching gesture wasn’t a one-off. Nor was it a constant physicality symbolizing my general awkwardness, or a “handy mnemonic…designed to help us keep track of a large cast of characters” like a twitch, a limp, or repetition of a phrase. (228) Instead, it was closer to a habit in the way that Orson Scott Card describes in his book Characters & Viewpoint. “Everyone alive has habits, some of them meaningless, but many of them the result of the patterns of our lives” (115).
In this vein, my slouch was a habit that popped up in the moments where I felt uncomfortable. Which means that there were indeed moments where I did not slouch at all. In fact, there were times when I held my head high. For example, I spent ten years playing piano, and it didn’t matter if I was in my living room practicing scales on my Yamaha, or in front of hundreds of people who had come to hear me play Liszt’s Au Lac De Wallenstadt. When I played, I sat more upright than the piano.
A single instance of a character’s movement, taken in isolation, is a window into the mind of the character. But when that piece of physicality is traced over the course of a narrative, that movement becomes an instance of a larger pattern, and as a result becomes weighty. Instances of the pattern become markers of important moments, resulting in a platform upon which the character’s pain and growth can be shared.
Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak tells the story of Melinda, a girl who is afraid to speak out about the rape that happened to her at a party the previous summer. Anderson illustrates Melinda’s fear to speak about her rape through a generalized fear of speaking. She doesn’t speak out loud at all, at least in the beginning, allowing the reader to learn her story through her internal monologue. But because Melinda isn’t speaking, her physicality is placed front and center. Throughout Speak, Anderson focuses Melinda’s movements around her mouth. By creating this pattern of movement, Anderson not only emphasizes Melinda’s fear of speaking, but also provides a vehicle for the reader to watch her relationship with mouth, and towards speech, grow and evolve.
Rachel Bruin, my ex-best friend. She stares at something above my left ear. Words climb up my throat. This was the girl who suffered through Brownies with me, who taught me how to swim, who understood about my parents, who didn’t make fun of my bedroom. If there is anyone in the entire galaxy I am dying to tell what really happened, it’s Rachel. My throat burns.
Her eyes meet mine for a second. “I hate you,” she mouths silently. She turns her back to me and laughs with her friends. I bite my lip. I am not going to think about it. It was ugly, but it’s over, and I’m not going to think about it. My lip bleeds a little. It tastes like metal. I need to sit down. (5)
If things had only gone just a bit differently in this moment, Melinda would have told Rachel everything. We see “the words climb up [her] throat” and she is “dying to tell [Rachel] what really happened.” Her “throat burns” because the words want to get out. However, Rachel, whose “I hate you” might have been better off stuck in her throat, has no trouble expressing herself. Now, Melinda no longer wants to speak. Instead, she shoves the words down her throat and bites her lip until she bleeds.
In using this movement, Anderson is showing the reader that Melinda would rather cause herself physical harm than open her mouth and speak. Furthermore, the severity of the lip-biting, the emphasis Anderson places on it and the amount of time spent describing not only the act of lip-biting itself but also the taste of the blood when it enters Melinda’s mouth, emphasizes this gesture. As Charles Baxter says in The Art Of Subtext, when it comes to symbolic staging and movement, “excessive detailing is its signpost” (13). By signposting this movement, Anderson lays the groundwork for Melinda’s pattern of physicality. Anderson is creating the vehicle for character growth by telling the reader to watch out for when this movement, and others like it, reappear in the text. Over the course of the book, Anderson traces Melinda’s growth as her mouth movements go from self-destructive and silencing, to simply silencing, and finally towards speech.
In the beginning, Melinda is biting her lips only during her waking hours, when she was conscious of her refusal to speak. But as she retreats deeper into her silence, it becomes increasingly subconscious. “It is getting harder to talk. My throat is always sore, my lips raw. When I wake up in the morning my jaws are clenched so tight I have a headache” (50). And as time progresses, pain in Melinda’s mouth becomes a trigger for memories of her rape.
I have a million envelopes to close. I run my tongue over the gross gummy envelope flap. 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. (74)
Up until this point, most of the gestures Anderson writes for Melinda have been very specific to the act of shutting her mouth. She bites her lip, clenches her jaw, both to the point of causing herself physical harm. Even though licking an envelope doesn’t immediately conjure an image of silence, (though the glue of the envelope could potentially suggest silence) by including this moment, Anderson illustrates how tightly coupled physical pain, specifically in Melinda’s mouth, has become to her feelings about her rape. She has become so accustomed to using this pain to prevent speech that now any pain in her mouth reminds her of the thing she is unwilling to speak about.
As people prove more willing to listen to Melinda’s story, her relationship to her mouth becomes less violent, though it remains silencing. When Heather’s mom asks Melinda if she wants to be a model, Anderson writes:
Heather says I am too shy. I look at her mother’s eyes watching me in the rearview mirror and hide my mouth with my fingers. The scabs on my lips look especially gross in that little rectangle mirror (82).
Yes, Melinda is covering her mouth with her hand to further silence herself, but this gesture is not physically harmful. Furthermore, the next time that Melinda notices her mouth in a mirror, her gesture once again evolves:
I lean into the mirror. Eyes after eyes after eyes stare back at me. Am I in there somewhere? A thousand eyes blink. No makeup. Dark circles. I pull the side flaps of the mirror in closer, folding myself into the looking glass and blocking out the rest of the store…
I push my ragged mouth against the mirror. A thousand bleeding, crusted lips push back…I exhale and my mouth disappears in a fog. (125)
This passage is a reprise of the previous example. In both, Melinda sees herself in a mirror, which forces her to confront the physical damage her silence has done to her body. But notice how differently she reacts in the two sections. In the first passage she sees her lips and hides them. She doesn’t want to look; she doesn’t want to see what has happened to her. And the way that she chooses to stop seeing the image is by covering her mouth with her hand. But in the second passage, she actually takes a moment to look at the damage her silence has brought her. She sees her “dark circles” and by asking “Am I in there somewhere?” she is wondering if this is truly what she looks like, and whether or not it’s who she wants to be. This hints at a disassociation between Melinda’s self and the image she sees. This is furthered when Melinda describes her lips not as “my lips” like in the first passage, but as “A thousand bleeding crusted lips.” The image she sees is no longer how she sees herself.
But the biggest difference between these two passages is that while Melinda covers her mouth in the first passage, she only covers the image of her mouth in the second. This harkens back at the disassociation between Melinda and her image, but it also speaks to Melinda’s distance from her rape itself. By covering up the mirror’s mouth instead of her own, Anderson shows that she is ready to overcome the damage the rape has done to her. She no longer will let the rape to be the first thing she sees when she looks in the mirror.
This movement also alludes to how other people view her rape. Since the party at which it happened, people’s image of Melinda has changed. Her best friends have abandoned her, and she is known by strangers as “the one who called the cops at Kyle Rodger’s party at the end of summer” (27). If her mouth, and the bloody crust that it has become, is a symbol of her rape, then the image in the mirror is a symbol of how people view her rape. By not covering up her own mouth and instead covering up her image in the mirror, Anderson shows that Melinda is ready to start controlling her own narrative. People will no longer say “[Melinda’s] creepy. What’s wrong with her lips? It looks like she’s got a disease or something” (45) when they look at her. This marks a turning point for Melinda because from this moment on, Melinda never bites her lips to the point of drawing blood again.
As the book comes to a close, Melinda begins speaking. When she runs into Ivy, one of her old best friends who is now in her art class, Ivy compliments Melinda’s turkey bone sculpture. Melinda reacts by not knowing how to respond. “What am I supposed to say now?” she asks. Then, Anderson writes, “I bite my lip, then release it. I pull a roll of Life Savers from my pocket. ‘Want a piece?’ She takes one, I take three, and we suck in silence for a moment” (145).
This is the only time after the mirror passage above when Melinda bites her lip. It is as if the moment of blowing fog over the image of her bleeding lips marked Melinda making a decision to never bite her lips again. And here, when she finds herself reverting back to her old patterns, she catches herself and transitions to silencing herself in a less harmful way—sucking on three Life Savers. Furthermore, the transition between these two gestures is done through speech. She asks Ivy “Want a piece?” And while this is an almost insignificant question, it marks yet another transition for Melinda. She is now instigating a conversation, not hiding from one, and she is sharing her silence, instead of suffering in it alone. By asking “Want a piece?” she is almost asking Ivy if she wants a piece of her silence. Ivy accepts and they sit in it together.
Anderson continues the theme of shared silences when Melinda has a conversation with David Petrakis that ends in the possibility of a date:
Me: “Do you lecture all of your friends like this?”
David: “Only the ones I like.”
We both chew on this for a minute. The bell rings. I keep looking in my locker for a book that I already know isn’t there. David checks his watch a hundred times. We hear Principal Principal bellow, “Let’s move it, people!”
David: “Maybe I’ll call you.”
Me: “Maybe I won’t answer” Chew, chew. Blowbubblepop. “Maybe I will.” (159)
In this passage, both David and Melinda have a secret, but this secret isn’t Melinda’s usual secret. In fact, this is a good secret, a shared one: Melinda and David like each other. So when they together “chew” on David’s comment of “Only the ones I like” it calls to mind the above passage with Ivy. Melinda’s silence is no longer isolating, but rather bonding. She is not chewing on her lips, she is chewing on gum. She is chewing on a moment. Furthermore, when David breaks their silence with “Maybe I’ll call you” Melinda responds with her words: “Maybe I won’t answer.” And even though she is shutting down David’s proposal, it doesn’t last. She chews her gum, which could be a silencer like the Life Savers above, but this time she doesn’t let it stop her from speaking. “Maybe I will.”
The climax for Melinda’s growth comes when Melinda writes on the bathroom stall that Andy Evans is a guy to stay away from. In this scene, Anderson writes, “I swing open the door with a flourish. ‘Ta-da!’ I point to my handiwork” (176). Finally, Melinda has reached a point where she doesn’t feel the need to hide from her rape, and as a result her gesture isn’t silencing in the slightest! Instead of closing a door, like she does in Mr. Freeman’s car when he says, “You’re a good kid. I think you have a lot to say. I’d like to hear it” (123) she is opening one. Or rather, she “swings” the door, a gesture larger and more physical than simply “opening” it, and Anderson even adds that she swings it “with a flourish.” And as the biggest signal of all, Melinda says “Ta-da!” and “points to her handiwork.” She is proud in this scene. She is drawing attention to herself, not only writing words on a bathroom wall, but “pointing” to them, and referring to it as “my handiwork.” She has taken ownership of it, and speaks. Her “ta-da” isn’t just about Andy’s name on a bathroom stall, it’s about her moment in the spotlight: a moment that she never wanted until now.
Anderson writes Melinda’s movements throughout Speak as mirrors of her relationship towards speech. At each moment, her movements provide a window into Melinda’s psyche at the given point, and when taken all together, Anderson creates a physicality for Melinda that allows the reader to watch her grow throughout the course of the story. By using these movements, not only does Anderson signal to the reader that the corresponding moments are important, but also she depicts Melinda’s growth through her patterns of movement.
In Orbiting Jupiter, Gary Schmidt shows us a very different sort of physicality in the character of Joseph. Like Melinda, Joseph is quiet, and says more through his silence than he does through words. Also like Melinda, Joseph is dealing with a personal trauma. His father was physically abusive, and at only fourteen years old, he is the father of a baby girl named Jupiter that he has never before met.
When Schmidt first introduces us to Joseph, he is coming to live with Jack, our narrator, and Jack’s family after a brief stint in prison. Ever since Joseph got out, Schmidt writes, “He won’t let anyone stand behind him. He won’t let anyone touch him” (3). This fact becomes the cornerstone of Joseph’s physicality. And as we watch Joseph grow as a character, we watch him slowly begin to allow people to make physical contact.
When we first meet Joseph he is silent and refuses to allow anyone to touch him:
And [Joseph] wouldn’t look at you when he talked—if he talked.
He didn’t say a thing when he got out of Mrs. Stroud’s car. He wouldn’t let my mother hug him. He wouldn’t shake my father’s hand. And when I brought him up to our room, he threw his stuff on the top bunk and climbed up and still didn’t say anything. (3)
However, this refusal of contact is limited only to humans. Joseph has no problem touching Rosie, the cow. “Still, after my father was done and he’d taken a couple of full buckets out to the cooler, Joseph went up behind Rosie and reached out and rubbed the end of her back, right above her tail” (6).
By putting these two interactions early on in the story, Schmidt provides a stark contrast. He shows us that Joseph is able to show affection for something—namely, Rosie—providing a light at the end of the tunnel. But Schmidt shows just how far Joseph has to go on this journey when Jack’s father tries to walk behind Joseph for the first time.
My father looked at me and smiled. Then he went around behind Joseph to pick up the pails he stacked.
And—bang!—Joseph leaped up as if something had exploded beneath him. His pail got knocked over again and the stool and Rosie mooed her afraid moo and Joseph stood with his back against the barn wall with his hands up, and even though he usually didn’t look at anyone he was looking at us and breathing fast and hard, like there wasn’t enough air in the whole wide world to breathe! (9)
This is a big physical reaction for Joseph. His hands are up, he’s breathing fast, and he’s standing as if something “exploded beneath him.” By giving Joseph this visceral, almost scary, movement after something relatively mundane, Schmidt is further laying the groundwork for Joseph’s physicality. It’s these visceral, reflexive reactions thrown into sharp relief by how easy it is for Joseph to show physical affection for Rosie that define Joseph’s psyche, and, transitively, his body.
Just as Melinda’s journey towards speech is mirrored in her relationship with her mouth, so too is Joseph’s journey mirrored in his relationship to touch. As Joseph slowly begins to open up to the people who care about him, he gets closer and closer to physical contact. When Joseph falls into the frozen lake and Jack saves him, Schmidt uses a proxy for physical contact in Jack’s coat and backpack.
I took off my backpack and dumped everything out into the snow.
Joseph still scratching.
I put one foot out onto the ice—he was only three steps away—and held on to the end of a strap and tossed the backpack out to him.
And felt my foot go through the ice and into the water and onto some rocks.
You can’t believe how strong the current was under the ice, even just up to my knee.
I might have screamed again.
But Joseph had one end of the backpack.
He tried to pull himself up onto the ice, but his left hand went through and he almost went under.
I leaned toward the bank, pulling the backpack.
And felt my other foot slide down into the dark water and the current yanking at both knees.
I’m pretty sure I screamed then.
Joseph tried to push himself up on the other side, and that ice held. I pulled again on the backpack and his chest came up onto the ice.
“Back up,” he hollered. “Back up.”
But I couldn’t back up. The water was rushing, and if I took my feet away from the rocks beneath them, I didn’t know what would happen. Maybe I’d slide under—like the yellow dog.
Joseph’s whole body was up on the ice now. He bellied up to the bank and rolled over onto the snow. He reached and grabbed my coat and he pulled, and I felt my feet leaving the rocks and for a second I might have screamed again, but then my back was up onto the bank and I was trying to kick—which isn’t so easy when your legs have been in freezing water, you know—and then my heels were going into snow and not into water and I stopped screaming. (40)
In this whole passage, Schmidt never allows Joseph and Jack to touch. Joseph needs Jack’s help in this moment, and yet by using the coat and backpack as a proxy for touch, Schmidt is still creating physical space between the two boys. Perhaps Joseph has made progress since violently jumping when Jack’s father moved behind him in the barn, but he still has far to go before he can touch Jack the way he touches Rosie.
The next instance of Joseph flinching happens while Joseph and Jack are on Office Duty.
Joseph stood. “I have to get to class,” he said.
Mr. Canton reached for him.
Joseph dropped his pack and immediately his back was against the wall and his hands up.
The way he was breathing…
“Don’t touch him,” I whispered. “Please, please don’t touch him.”
Mr. Canton looked at me, then back at Joseph.
“So you better get to class,” he said.
I picked up Joseph’s backpack and handed it to him. His eyes never left Mr. Canton, but he took the backpack and he followed me out of the office—a half step behind. (59)
This instance of Joseph flinching is not much different from the first instance of him flinching. Perhaps it is less violent in that there is no “bang!” and no jumping like something “exploded beneath him” like in the first instance. This time, Joseph simply drops his pack and stands against the wall, though he does it “immediately”. But this time Joseph has someone on his side. “Don’t touch him,” Jack whispers. “Please, please don’t touch him.” Joseph isn’t alone in this moment, which is perhaps why Schmidt chooses to make his flinch smaller than the first time. Furthermore, immediately after this reaction, Jack picks up Joseph’s backpack and hands it to him. If we think of the backpack as a surrogate for touch like it was when Jack saves Joseph from drowning, the handing off of the backpack is a moment of closeness between Jack and Joseph. Although, it is still not quite physical touch.
As time progresses, Joseph moving back against the wall becomes synonymous with his discomfort with closeness, just like how pain in Melinda’s mouth becomes synonymous with her thinking about her rape. When Jack’s mother asks Joseph if he’d ever been to a Congregational church service before, Schmidt writes this passage:
My mother looked at him.
“Never once?” she said.
He shook his head.
“Didn’t your mother—“ And immediately she knew she’d gone too far, since Joseph backed up against the wall and looked down. “I’m sorry, Joseph. I’m being nosy and I hate nosy people.” (109)
Even though this is not a moment where Joseph is in physical contact with a person, he is in danger of being emotionally close to someone, namely Jack’s mother. Because Schmidt has provided Joseph with a strong physicality, we know that this movement towards the wall means that Joseph is uncomfortable. But, notice how different this gesture is from the ones before it. This one is not violent at all. Nothing is “exploding” he isn’t even moving “immediately” like in the past. Now, it’s Jack’s mom who knows “immediately” she has gone too far because Joseph “backed up against the wall and looked down.” This is a slower movement for Joseph. It feels more like a habit and less like a reflex. Furthermore, Schmidt doesn’t write anything about Joseph’s breathing here, implying that Joseph is making a decision to move back towards the wall, and is acting less on instinct. Just like Melinda’s gestures move off of her body as she moves closer to speech, so too does Joseph’s gestures become les reflexive as he becomes closer to Jack’s family.
The real turning point for Joseph comes when he voluntarily hugs Jack’s parents for the first time. On Christmas, Jack’s parents give Joseph the gift of helping him find his daughter.
There was an envelope underneath Joseph’s angel.
Joseph stood up and took it. He opened it slowly. He unfolded the paper. He read it, and then read it again, out loud.
“ ‘We’ll help,’ “ he read.
“Help with what?” I said.
“We’ll call Mrs. Stroud tomorrow and see if we can set up a meeting,” my mother said.
Then I knew.
But I think Joseph knew what they meant right away.
He put the paper back into the envelope. He slipped the envelope between the pages of Walden. And no kidding, watching him, I thought he was going to start bawling, just like Reverend Ballou.
He walked over to my mother and she put her arms around him and he put his arms around her and he leaned into her—the way he did with Rosie.
Then my father came up behind him. He put his hand on Joseph’s back.
Christmas is the season for miracles, you know. Sometimes they come big and loud, I guess—but I’ve never seen one of those. I think probably most of the miracles are a lot smaller, and sort of still, and so quiet, you could miss them.
I didn’t miss this one.
When my father put his hand on Joseph’s back, Joseph didn’t even flinch. (115)
This is a turning point in the story, and Schmidt signposts it with a huge shift in Joseph’s physicality. Just six pages earlier, Joseph is flinching when Jack’s mother mentions Joseph’s mother. But now, something deep within Joseph has changed, and with this, so has his physicality. Not only does he not flinch when Jack’s father touches him, but he actually reaches out himself to hug Joseph’s mother. Contrast this with Joseph at the beginning of the book, when he refuses to shake Jack’s father’s hand, and refuses to hug Jack’s mother. The character has reached a turning point, and Schmidt mirrors this in Jack’s physicality.
Notice, however, that Joseph never touches Jack in this scene. In fact, not once yet has Joseph ever made physical contact with Jack. Joseph has “slid over (55)” so that Jack can ride the bus next to him, they have shared a bedroom and a bunk bed, and they have stood next to each other looking out the window (99), and they have even saved each other from drowning in a frozen lake. But they have never made skin-to-skin contact.
From this moment on, Joseph’s physicality directly reflects how close he feels to Jupiter. The very next day, Jack’s family gets a call from Joseph’s father. And when it happens, Joseph reverts in his physicality.
It was Joseph’s father.
“Hello, Mr. Brook,” said my mother.
Joseph backed up against the wall. (120)
Joseph’s father represents an obstacle towards finding Jupiter, and as such, Joseph’s actions mirror this step backwards. Still, it is not as violent as his initial jump back. This is more reminiscent of when Jack’s mother asks about Joseph’s mother. He “backs up” against the wall, he isn’t “immediately” up against the wall like the second time, and he doesn’t “explode” like the first time. And once again he is not breathing heavily. So even though this is a step back from the physical contact of a hug, Joseph still manages to be in some control of his body.
Another big turning point comes when Joseph meets the woman his daughter is staying with. Schmidt writes this interaction:
She went up to Joseph and stood close to him.
She reached out to touch him, but he moved back and away.
She let her arm go down and she said something.
She pointed back at the car, at me.
He shook his head.
She said something.
Joseph shook his head again.
Then the police showed up. They got out from their car, two guys. Two big guys. They walked up to the librarian and Joseph with that slow, big walk police have. They stood next to Joseph, and he backed up a little so they wouldn’t be standing behind him. They talked to the librarian and she talked to them. She shook her head.
She said something to Joseph again.
He shook his head, and one of those big policemen put his arm on Joseph’s.
Joseph pulled it away—which the big policeman did not like. He came closer. Joseph took a step back and I could tell what he was going to do—and where.
So, I guess, could the librarian.
She held out her hand and said something else. They all three looked at her. She said something else, and then she ran into the house.
Joseph watched her. He didn’t even see the other policeman come around behind him, that’s how hard he watched her.
Then she came out, kind of running, and in her hand was a photograph.
She gave it to Joseph and he looked at it. I could tell his hand was sort of trembling, but he never took his eyes off it. Then she put her arm behind Joseph’s back—he was still looking at the photograph, so he didn’t flinch—and she walked with him to her car. (160-161)
In this passage alone, Schmidt gives us several iterations on Joseph’s physicality. At first, when he thinks he has hit the end of the line towards Jupiter, Joseph “moved back and away” when the librarian tries to touch him. When the police arrive, he takes active steps to “back up a little so they wouldn’t be standing behind him.” And when the police are about to take him away so that he will never see Jupiter, he reverts almost all the way back to his initial violent flinches. He first pulls his arm away, which angers the policeman, and Joseph gets so violent that he almost kicks the cop in the groin, something which he has only previously done when being beaten up in the locker room (94), in a moment where his safety is under direct attack.
But in this moment, the librarian steps in and stops this physical reaction by bringing Joseph closer to his daughter than he has ever been before: she gives him a picture of her. Now, all of a sudden, he lets a police officer stand behind him and he allows the librarian to put her arm around him.
Immediately after this, we hit the climax of Joseph’s journey towards Jupiter. Joseph’s father comes to Jack’s house with a gun and threatens to shoot if Jack’s family doesn’t give up Joseph. In this moment, Joseph’s body language has shifted entirely. When Jack enters the kitchen, Schmidt writes:
Here’s what I saw when I slammed into the kitchen, less than one second later.
My mother standing behind Joseph, with her hands on his shoulders. (172)
For the first time, Joseph is allowing himself to be protected by someone behind him. This evolution of Joseph’s physicality is a literal representation of Jack’s mother “having Joseph’s back,” which, incidentally is what Jack said to the librarian when the librarian asked who Jack was. The librarian even refers to Jack as “Guy Who Has Jupiter’s Father’s Back” on page 155.
And when Joseph’s father holds a gun to Jack’s side and threatens to shoot if Joseph doesn’t come with him, finally, for the first time, Joseph touches Jack.
I felt the gun move away from my side.
Joseph took my arm and pulled me away from his father. “Dad, let’s go.” He put his hand on my back and nudged me toward my father.
And Joseph, Joseph took his father’s arm—“C’mon”—and they went through the door, and outside. “Let’s go.”
The door closed. (175)
This whole time, Joseph has touched Rosie, Jack’s father and Jack’s mother. He had even touched Jack’s coat and backpack, but this is the first moment where Joseph has touched Jack himself. This is the final moment Jack sees Joseph, and his sphere of physical contact has finally included Jack, cementing the relationship between the two boys in the last scene with them together.
In Orbiting Jupiter Schmidt creates a complex, nuanced character in Joseph, someone who desperately wants to find his daughter, and has a hard time connecting with other people. By giving Joseph a strong, yet evolving physicality in which he slowly learns to accept affection and support, Schmidt provides a window into Joseph’s psyche at various points in the story. Just like with Melinda’s physicality, we are able to watch as Joseph grows and evolves, moving closer to his daughter and also to the people who care about him.
In George by Alex Gino, Gino creates yet another quiet character whose physicality reflects inner turmoil. George is a girl whom the world sees as a boy, and Gino tracks George’s journey towards girlhood through her physicality. Specifically, throughout the text, Gino defines George’s physicality as a dichotomy between the small, feminine movements done in private, and the uncomfortable, force-masculine movements done in public. Gino represents the private and public spheres by the mirror and the camera lens, respectively.
First, we see George in front of a mirror. “Melissa was the name she called herself in the mirror when no one was watching and she could brush her flat reddish-brown hair to the front of her head, as if she had bangs” (4) Gino uses a mirror to represent how George sees herself. In this case, George sees herself as a girl, so when she looks in the mirror she makes her reflection, for lack of a better word, reflect that. Throughout the course of the story, George repeatedly finds herself in the bathroom combing her hair in front of her face to look like bangs. The gesture itself is representative of George’s disconnect between her outward appearance and her inward gender. Furthermore, the quietness and privacy of the gesture speaks volumes to the sort of person that George is.
But Gino doesn’t limit George’s physicality to movements in front of the mirror, because George’s physicality is not limited by simply how she sees herself. George is a girl that the world sees as a boy, so George’s physicality is just as defined by how the world sees her as how she sees herself. Gino illustrates this by George’s actions in front of a camera lens.
Kelly [George’s best friend] directed George to stand against the back of her door and began to shoot.
“Put your left foot in front of your right,” she told George. George did, but Kelly frowned. “Nah, put it back.” She took a few more shots. “Look up in the sky. No, not like you’re looking at a plane. Like you’re looking at a leaf on a tree.”
George didn’t mind so much when Kelly took a few pictures of her, but she hated it when Kelly tried to pose her. Kelly was persistent, though, and it was faster to let her take her pictures than to argue with her, lose, and have Kelly take even more shots to prove her point.
Kelly modeled George with a book, and shot close-ups of the spaces between her fingers. She gave George a baseball cap and sunglasses to wear and took pictures until George couldn’t take it anymore and begged her to stop. (42)
By adding this scene, Gino is creating a contrast between how George moves when she sees herself and how George moves when the world sees her. Just as the mirror is a literal representation of how George sees herself, Kelly’s camera is a literal representation of how the world sees George. And here, George is hesitant. Kelly tries to make George move one way and George wants to move another. Kelly tries to pose George with boy things—a baseball cap and sunglasses—but it doesn’t feel like George, so George refuses.
By giving us these two circumstances to display George’s physicality—small, private, feminine movements and the big, public, masculine ones—Gino is providing us with the opportunity to watch George’s movements change as her inward and outward perceptions merge.
The hair-combing in the mirror gesture appears twice more in its private form throughout the text:
She scrubbed her body, stood with a splash, and dried off with her fuzzy blue towel. Then she wrapped the towel around her torso, up by her armpits the way girls do, and ran a small black comb through her hair. She brushed it forward and stared at her pale, freckled face in the mirror before combing it back into its regular part down the middle. (45)
In the bathroom, George combed her hair forward. If she squinted at the mirror, she almost looked like a girl. (127)
And George’s discomfort in front of a camera appears once more:
Kelly drew her camera out of her pocket. Then she started giving out directions as she circled around George, shooting away. “Smile more like you just got a present. Now surprise, when you open the gift. And joy, like you just got what you always wanted.”
George frowned. “Could you take pictures of the face I’m making, instead of telling me what face I should have?” (106)
And in both cases, Gino deepens George’s physicality. When she is alone, she moves “the way girls do.” She wraps her towel around her torso and continues to look for a girl in the reflection she sees in the mirror. And when Kelly tries to take pictures of George in big, loud poses, George once again snaps at Kelly for trying to make her into someone she is not.
These discrepancies between the public and private gestures comprise George’s physicality. But the vehicle for evolution in George’s physicality doesn’t come from George alone the way that Melinda’s evolution towards speech is largely internal. Just like Joseph’s fear of human contact is thrown into sharp relief by his affinity for Rosie, so to is George’s physicality thrown into sharp relief by juxtaposing her movements against Kelly’s.
Kelly gulped her juice down in three swallows. “Ahhhhhhhhhhh! White grape juice. My favorite!” She wiped her hand across her mouth, added the cup to the pile of dishes filling the sink, and set herself in the empty space on the floor where her father had been sitting among a chaos of paper. She oinked several times and pushed the nearest piles carefully out of her way before rolling onto her back and rocking back and forth, a pig gleefully wallowing in mud. (39)
“I happen to love green beans, you know. When my dad sautés them in garlic with just a touch of olive oil…” Kelly brought her fingers to her mouth and kissed them to the air. “Mmm-wa! Bon appétit! But this stuff?” She picked up a droopy bean between her thumb and forefinger. “It’s limper than the spaghetti. Which is overdone too!” (54)
Everything Kelly does is big. Her “Ah” has seven h’s, she oinks just for fun, and she rolls around on her back like a pig, like she doesn’t care who’s watching. The gesture of bringing her fingers to her mouth and kissing them is almost flail-y, and rings authentic for a fourth grade girl who feels fully comfortable in her body. And these big gestures, always the same whether in public or private, contrast sharply with George’s private gesture of combing her hair in front of her face and of being nervous in front of a camera.
By creating such a stark contrast between George’s physicality and Kelly’s physicality, Gino creates a space for evolution by bringing the two girls’ physicalities closer together. As George begins to open up to Kelly, her mother, and her brother about her true identity, George’s gestures become increasingly public. The first time George combs her hair into bangs after coming out to the people in her life is just before she is about to go onstage as Charlotte in the play.
Backstage, Kelly took off the vest of spider arms and handed it to George, who checked to make sure that Mr. Jackson wasn’t watching. Then she donned the vest. The fake arms were filled with cotton and didn’t weigh much, but they were bulky. George had to bunch them up in her real arms, as she had seen Kelly do, to make sure she didn’t trip over them. She combed her hair forward with her fingers, as she had done countless times in the mirror, and waited. The opening scenes of the play had never been so slow. (152)
In the moment where George is about to make her debut on stage as a female character in the play, this hair-combing gesture has a deeper meaning than just as a private moment between George and herself in the mirror. Gino signposts this moment with this gesture because not only is it the first time that George will go out in public as a girl—sort of, it is as of yet just a play—but it’s the first time she is letting anyone else see her as the person she sees in the mirror.
Furthermore, immediately before George combs her hair into bangs, she is stepping into Kelly’s costume. By placing this here, Gino narrows the gap between George and Kelly. At first George’s gestures were small and private, but now she is literally stepping into Kelly’s shoes. While her small gesture of hair combing is still small, it is no longer private. This marks a turning point for George.
The final climax of the story comes when George and Kelly go to the zoo with Kelly’s uncle as “best girl friends” (167). When George went on stage as Charlotte, she still wasn’t going as herself. She was going as a character in a play, perhaps even going so far as to say George was going as Kelly going as a character in a play. So the trip to the Bronx Zoo is the first opportunity for George to go as herself: Melissa.
Kelly sat Melissa down in a chair in front of the mirror and began to brush Melissa’s hair. She tried brushing it first to one side, and then the other, but decided finally to brush it forwards so that the tips of it fell just above Melissa’s eyebrows. (184)
This time, the gesture has completely transformed because it is not George—or rather, Melissa—doing the brushing, it is Kelly. There is no mirror in this scene, because the world is seeing Melissa as she is seeing herself. She is going by a different name, she is wearing a skirt, and she will spend the day in the body in which she feels most comfortable.
Furthermore, by having Kelly do the combing, Gino once again illustrates the closing gap between Kelly and Melissa. Now, both girls wear skirts, both girls have female names, and both girls are comfortable in their bodies. Gino further illustrates this by having Melissa adopt some of Kelly’s bigger movements when she appears in front of the camera for the final time, Kelly gave up and Melissa delightedly put on the pink tank top and purple skirt back on. She twirled in the center of the room, giddy on freedom” (184).
This is very different from the above passages where Kelly tells George how to pose and George snaps back. Now, Kelly isn’t telling Melissa how to move at all, Melissa is just moving. She’s twirling, a feminine gesture that she only previously had done in her room (“but once George was up in her room, she twirled around and around like a spider dancing on a web” (162).) and the camera is capturing who she truly is. The gap between the camera and mirror has narrowed, just as the gap between Kelly and Melissa has narrowed, and the gap between George’s inward and outward personas has narrowed, and this is mirrored through Melissa’s expression of her physicality.
While Anderson, Schmidt, and Gino use physicality to signpost character growth throughout their stories, this is of course not the only way character growth can be signposted. In Okay For Now, Gary Schmidt marks Doug Swieteck’s important moments with sarcastic one-line instances of the word “Terrific.”
My brother said he’d sleep on a couch in the living room at night so he didn’t have to room with a puke, but my father said he didn’t want him hanging around like he owned the place or something. So he moved his stuff up with me.
And then in the end, marks significant moments by non-sarcastic one-line instances of the word “Terrific.”
You know what it feels like to stroke color onto an Arctic Tern flying off the page, going wherever it wants to go?
In Bigger Than a Bread Box, Laurel Snyder marks important moments in Rebecca’s relationship with her parent’s separation in what she asks for from her magic breadbox. She goes from wishing for self-serving items like a magic wand, a diamond, and cash, (40-42) to wishing for comforting items, like food from her home in Baltimore (90-94), to finally wishing for what she really wants: her parents to get back together (140-141).
But what makes Melinda, Joseph, and George different from Doug and Rebecca is that Melinda, Joseph, and George are all keeping secrets. Big ones. Secrets about who they are as people, secrets that affect how the world sees them, secrets that sometimes, in the case of Melinda’s rape and Joseph’s abusive father, even the reader doesn’t know until halfway through the book. And in all three cases, the book’s central focus is how the character deals with that secret, ultimately sharing it with their closest friends or family.
A character’s body language is a useful tool for a writer because it allows us to convey details of that character’s psyche without having to explicitly state what it is. But when a character’s “vacuum” or “wound”—in the Franny Billingsly sense—is something that they are unable to talk about, their body language becomes even more important in relaying the progress towards dealing with that wound. And then, when that wound is finally healed, the “change in pattern show[s] an important change in the character’s life” (Card 15).
Melinda would have been incapable of having a recurring linguistic tic like Doug Swieteck in Okay For Now, because she never spoke. And even though she didn’t have a breadbox, George’s wish was always the same: to be seen as a girl. By tracing character growth with a pattern of physicality, Anderson, Schmidt, and Gino convey the internal struggle between their characters and their secrets in a way that allows the reader to notice when progress has been made, but without sacrificing the intrinsic silence of the character.
Our body language is a critical part of our character. And just like any other part of our character, it manifests from billions and billions of little life experiences. Every time a shoe salesperson tells me I don’t need high heels, I slouch. Every time I’m shoved in the back of a group photo, I slouch. But every time I feel strong, confident in my body, and proud of who I am, I stand with my head held high.
Anderson, Laurie Halse. Speak. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1999. Print.
Card, Orson Scott. Characters and Viewpoint. Cincinnati, OH: Writer's Digest, 1988. Print.
Gino, Alex. George. New York: Scholastic, 2015. Print.
Prose, Francine. Reading like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. Print.
Schmidt, Gary D. Okay for Now. NY, NY: Clarion, 2011. Print.
Schmidt, Gary D. Orbiting Jupiter. London: Andersen, 2016. Print.
Snyder, Laurel. Bigger than a Bread Box. New York: Random House, 2011. Print.
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