Eleanor & Park: a terrifying YA romance that has rescued its readers and frightened their parents
Last week, the National Coalition Against Censorship honored Rainbow Rowell for her refusal to be back down on the frequent challenges to her multiple-award-winning, bestselling 2013 novel Eleanor & Park. I was there, and got a copy of the novel, and have read nothing since, and now that I've finished it, I find myself profoundly moved.
Eleanor & Park is told as a series of very short vignettes alternating the points of view of Eleanor, a fat, redheaded, awkward teenaged girl who lives with four siblings and an abusive, alcoholic, snake-mean stepfather; and Park, a biracial Korean-American kid who uses his love of alternative music and comics to shut out the taunting bullies in his school.
They are thrown together when Eleanor moves back in with her mother and stepfather, and faces naked hostility as she boards the schoolbus for the first time. Park takes mercy on her and makes room for her, and the two ride in silence, day after day, as seatmates.
As romance blossoms for Eleanor and Park, the terrifying abuse in Eleanor's home also ramps up, with palpable danger not just for Eleanor, but for her beloved (but fatally compromised) mother, and her small, vulnerable siblings.
Rowell's romance writing is second to none -- her characters are flawed, lovable, and superbly drawn, and their attraction to one another is simultaneously intense and chaste. The eros and agape of Park and Eleanor's first time holding hands is so deftly handled that it practically scorches the page.
Against that gorgeous romance is the mounting, stark terror of Eleanor's homelife, and the monster who she lives with in the most claustrophobic quarters imaginable (the family bathroom is off the kitchen and has no door; Eleanor rushes home to bathe before her stepfather gets home and parks himself in front of the TV with a view of the tub). That terror is all the more gripping for Rowell's depictions of the redeeming qualities of Eleanor's mother, and Eleanor's recollections of better times as a family.
The frequent challenges to this book in schools and libraries are hard to understand. Though this is a book with a lot of cursing in it, it is almost entirely directed at the protagonists, who deplore it as vulgar and mean. Though this is a book shot through with romance, there is virtually no sex in it.
What it does have is teenagers living difficult -- and even violent -- lives, surrounded by adults who are at best ineffectual and at worst part of the problem. What's more, the problem grownups in this book are all disciplinarians who think kids need tough love to grow up right, and who are manifestly, demonstrably wrong. It's almost as though the adults who object to this book are ashamed to see their own attitudes rebutted so forcefully, and then seize on the pretext of "bad language" to object to it. But that couldn't possibly be right, right?
Eleanor is fat -- big boned, too, but also, actually, fat. She lives in an agony of body-shame over this (the kids in her school don't help, and neither do the grownups). But she is also beautiful, something that Park sees and burns with, and which he slowly, slowly begins to convince Eleanor of -- even as the clock is ticking down to her stepfather's discovery of their relationship and his no-doubt violent, destructive result.
This combination of factors -- a biracial protagonist, a fat protagonist, an interracial romance, bullying, body shame, domestic abuse -- means that this book speaks to young readers (and 45 year old dudes like me) in profound ways. At the NCAC banquet, the organizers showed a reel of kids from all over the world discussing the ways that the book had helped them grapple with their own struggles (the NCAC has an admirable project doing this for lots of challenged YA books, and you can read what some of Rowell's readers said for yourself).
When that video ended, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. CEOs of giant publishing conglomerates, hard-fighting civil liberties lawyers, teachers, writers -- every one of us misted up with that palpable demonstration of how literature -- challenging, tough-minded, beautiful literature -- can change young peoples' lives.
Read for yourself, and you'll understand why.
Eleanor & Park [Rainbow Rowell/St Martin's Griffin]
"Key Performance Indicators" -- KPIs -- are the metrics used by software shops to figure out whether their products are improving; notoriously, much of the software industry has converged on "engagement" (that is, minutes spent with an app) as a KPI, and everyone from designers to programmers to managers to execs earn their bonuses and […]
I've often said that science fiction doesn't tell you much about the future, but it sure tells you a lot about the present: the fact that we're still citing Frankenstein and the Terminator tells you that we're worried about being carried away by our technology, the fact that we're still citing The Matrix tells you […]
Cult of the Dead Cow: the untold story of the hacktivist group that presaged everything great and terrible about the internet
Back in 1984, a lonely, weird kid calling himself Grandmaster Ratte' formed a hacker group in Lubbock, Texas. called the Cult of the Dead Cow, a name inspired by a nearby slaughterhouse. In the decades to come, cDc would become one of the dominant forces on the BBS scene and then the internet -- endlessly […]
When it comes to large computer systems, not one of them is fully secure. Even with constant updates to the platforms that keep vital networks humming, there’s always a back door. And companies are willing to pay handsomely to effective bouncers that can keep an eye on them. Call them ethical hackers or white hat […]
So you’ve visited the Kennedy Space Center every year. You’ve watched “The Right Stuff” for the 95th time. There must be something to do while you’re waiting to join Space Force for the next manned mission to Mars or the moon. Here’s a combo that should raise a salute from any fan of space or […]
Looking for a new tablet? If you haven’t upgraded in a while, it might be time to check out the latest iPad Pro for two very good reasons. First, the 2018 model is a real workhorse. The 12X Bionic chip processor means it can handle any task you set out for it, and still have […]