In my school district, one of the largest in the state I live in, the novel Eleanor and Park has created much controversy because of the language used and the grittiness of the two misfit lead characters, Eleanor and Park. The novel has been described as "a rare and surprising exploration of young misfit love" and that the author Rainbow Rowell, "shows us the beauty in the broken." How does the author accomplish showing us why these two descriptions so aptly fit her novel "about love and outsiders," and why this novel is worth the effort to read despite the controversy?
Rainbow Rowell’s novel of teenage love, Eleanor and Park, does comprise something of a “perfect storm” with respect to themes and language objectionable to many parents. In addition to the liberal use of profanity, the story involves two minors desperately in love, which can lead to sex, as well as interracial issues that are a prominent feature of the story. A Korean American boy in love with a North European American girl taking place in Nebraska was tailor-made for some level of controversy, although the fact that interracial relationships can still be touchy subject in the 21st Century is a bit depressing. We do live, however, in a world in which racism remains very much a part of many societies (witness, for example, the recent revelation that the wealthy owner of a professional basketball team, a team led by African American athletes, appears to be racist). This educator, upon relocating from the East Coast to the northern Midwest (northeastern Minnesota, to be precise, not far from where Eleanor’s uncle lives), was surprised to discover that, among those of Norwegian and Swedish ancestry, marriage to someone of Finnish ancestry was grounds for contempt. Some things never change. Rowell evidently calculated that her plot would incite certain negative reactions, both internally in her story and externally in terms of the public’s reaction. Why else would she reference the quintessential tragedy involving young love, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:
“Bono met his wife in high school," Park says.
"So did Jerry Lee Lewis," Eleanor answers.
"I’m not kidding," he says.
"You should be," she says, "we’re sixteen."
"What about Romeo and Juliet?"
"Shallow, confused," then dead.
"I love you, Park says.
"Wherefore art thou," Eleanor answers.
"I’m not kidding," he says.
"You should be.”
Rowell’s novel, as the critical comments provided in the question attest, does feature a relationship beautiful in its purity and depth of commitment despite the enormous obstacles the two young lovers have to overcome. And, in its complexity with respect to backgrounds and cultures, it captures a realism that might hit close to home for some readers (or, more likely, for adults who won’t read it but condemn it on the basis of innuendo). Any instance, however, in which an author depicts characters of an ethnicity not his or her own, he or she is opening him- or herself up to charges from that particular ethnicity of engaging in stereotypes and simplistic generalizations. All of that, however, is beside the point. The amount of profanity in the Eleanor and Park is in and of itself sufficient grounds for many parents to object to the book’s presence on public school grounds. The novel is worth reading, and worth recommending to many teenagers, however, precisely because it shows the power of love and its ability to transcend differences. The eminent worth of an individual, of course, is in that person’s character, what Martin Luther King, Jr., famously referred to as “the content of their character.” In that, Rowell has succeeded in writing a novel that merits attention; at a minimum, it merits be included in the school library’s collection.