Review | Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card (PART 2 of 2)

Editor’s Note: This is the eleventh in Stephen Olson’s series of posts on Orson Scott Card’s award winning Ender’s Game novels and the second on Speaker for the Dead. You can find his other posts on the Ender’s Game series here.

My first year of teaching was book-ended by readings of Speaker for the Dead.

In September, I read through it in two days.  From the moment I picked it up again, a little after dinner, I just hungered for the book.  The first night, I got to the start of the climax, and suddenly realized it was getting close to midnight.  The moment I got home from school the next day, I jumped back in and finished.

Speaker for the Dead focuses on Ender Wiggin, who is a Speaker for the Dead.  This pseudo-religion comes from a pair of highly influential books, both signed anonymously by Speaker for the Dead, about an extinct alien race and an important human leader.  Each book tells the story of its subject in an honest and loving way, hoping to reveal the whole truth: their desires, their frustrations, their successes and their failures.  Following the pattern of these stories, ministers calling themselves Speakers for the Dead began to preach funeral sermons after investigating the dead.  Ender answers the call for a Speaker for the Dead on a planet twenty light-years away, hoping that his Speaking can heal the pain of a young woman who he feels may be the only person who can understand his own pain.

This desire to heal others really spoke to me: I had become a teacher to help others.  While some might not immediately recognize the healing power of math, I have found that in letting my students know how much I care, they begin to feel comfortable talking to me about their various situations.  And my new school reminded me so much of my original first school; maybe I could make up for having had to leave the students there.  Ender’s core desire is to make amends for his actions through trying to understand and help others, and I couldn’t help but feel like this is why I had ended up at that school.

Perhaps this is why I felt such a strong draw to the book at this time in my life.  The Ender who we left at a young age at the end of Ender’s Game, the Ender who I related to and understood so many years ago, grew up into a wonderfully compassionate man, full of complex desires and emotions.  While I now knew enough of life and the world that I could understand and admire who Ender had become, I also knew that I could not measure up to such an idealized man.  And so my study during this year, whether I actively realized it or not, was to try to become something like this fictional hero.

When Ender said things like “No human being is worthless.  No one’s life is nothing,” I just knew that somehow he was talking about the former students whose difficulties had overwhelmed me, who made me feel like they could never have hope.  He was condemning me for giving up on those students.  And yet later, a character realizes that the power of the speaker is in “telling the story of who [you were], and then realizing that [you were] no longer the same person.”  Maybe I was guilty of abandoning my first teaching position, but reliving the story of it could make me whole because it allowed me to see how I had changed and become a better person.

Speaker for the Dead

Speaker for the Dead (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Sickness and healing are in every heart.  Death and deliverance are in every hand.”  Again, Ender the Speaker taught me what I needed to know about myself, and about my students.  The girl who worked most of her spare time to help provide for her family, and yet spoke incredibly rudely about me behind my back.  The boy whose hard work as a teacher aide significantly cut my workload, but then felt it necessary to torture students by finding out their secrets and sharing them on Facebook.  And myself, the teacher who so wanted to help students, and then often allowed his fear of vulnerability to keep students at a distance when they needed him the most.  Though nothing in the book explained how to deal with these situations, I still felt understood.  Somehow the book made the world nicer place that made more sense.

In another passage, a character observes that the Speaker’s power is in forcing the community to discover and rediscover itself as it hears the dead’s story told again and again in different ways.  Every day I lived this as I kept relearning the stories of the students I taught.  At the same time, I kept finding new ways to tell my own story, new ways to examine my own life.  Orson Scott Card never actually gives us the text of either of the books signed by the original Speaker of the Dead, but his book titled Speaker for the Dead tells us a new story of Ender Wiggin that allows us to rediscover him, to understand who he truly is.

And so it was that during the last week of school, I decided to finally open up and tell my students my own story.  I explained how my first teaching job had caused my such intense anxiety that I couldn’t function properly.  I told about all of the job interviews, where I felt like a failure when I didn’t get the job.  I confided that being at their school reminded me of that first job and allowed me to feel like I could fix what I had done wrong.  That night, I started reading Speaker for the Dead again, and I had to stop about a hundred pages in because I was crying so hard.

I apologize that this review does not directly address the quality of the book at all.  If you did not catch it, then here it is:  Speaker for the Dead is a tremendously beautiful book, and I love it very much.  Just in writing about it, I have been able to uncover yet another layer of my own story, and I understand my own life that much better.  I don’t know that everybody experiences this same level of self-reflection, but that is what I go through each time I read it.

I’ve come full circle from my first time reading Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead.  When I was twelve and only saw Ender’s Game as a futuristic action story about a kid like me, I could only see Speaker for the Dead as a story that failed to deliver on the action I loved.

On the other hand, now that I read Ender’s Game and appreciate the complex moral undercurrents, Speaker for the Dead continues that part of the story in a wonderful way.  It is a true sequel to the aspects of Ender’s Game that I just did not understand when I first read it.

Parental Advisory

  • Language: The worst of it is in Portuguese.  Don’t use Google translate.
  • Adult themes: Some disturbing imagery.  And a reminder, don’t use Google translate.

Stephen Olson teaches math at North Layton Junior High.  When not teaching math, he polices the halls and library of his school, ensuring that students partake of only the best reading material.  On the rare occasions he finds himself away from school, Stephen reads, writes, and writes about reading. You can follow him on Twitter @MathTeacherGuy or email him at mathteacherguyATgmailDOTcom.

Does Speaker for the Dead sound interesting? Do the author a favor and pick up a copy from Amazon. It puts bread on their table and helps them keep writing great fiction.

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About Stephen

Stephen Olson teaches math at North Layton Junior High. When not teaching math, he polices the halls and library of his school, ensuring that students partake of only the best reading material. On the rare occasions he finds himself away from school, Stephen reads, writes, and writes about reading. You can follow him on Twitter