Sunday, March 16, 2014

Reading: Eleanor and Park

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One of my earliest memories is sitting on a step at our gingerbread house on Webster Avenue listening to the joyful noise of U2 emitting from my dad's stereo.  It was the song "I Still Haven't Found what I'm Looking For," song number two on The Joshua Tree album, and it's remained one of my favorite songs since I was three years old!  Needless to say, I do appreciate most music from the 1980s, and when I discovered Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell, a forbidden love story tangled with eighties music and given the Odyssey award in 2013, I was eager to read it! (Or in this case, listen to it.)  

Listening to an audiobook was a new experience for me because usually when I drive, I always always always listen to music, often from The Joshua Tree, as a matter of fact!  But with a pretty packed schedule, I can see how listening to a book on audio is convenient, though I prefer to hold a book in my hand and spend time mulling over the words to really grasp the story.  With this particular story, I still am grappling with some questions that I have about the characters and making connections from the beginning of the book to the end. 

It's the first day of school when Eleanor and Park meet at the back of the bus.  Park makes room for Eleanor on his seat, even though he can't help but notice that she is dressed strangely and has bright red curly hair, which the other students tease her about.  They soon bond over shared comic books and music and take their new friendship to a relationship.  Meanwhile, Eleanor has many secrets at home, including the fact that her step-father, Richie, is an abusive alcoholic who won't allow Eleanor to do anything.  In fact, Richie is one of the most deplorable characters I have ever read about - he's worse than an Ewell, actually.  I also felt angry with Eleanor's mother for allowing Eleanor and her four other children to live with Richie.  He didn't provide any safety, comfort, humor, love, compassion, fun, or financial stability for the family, so I just couldn't understand why she would allow the stepfather of her children to be so cruel.

Park, on the other hand, lives with his endearing family: his mother, an Avon lady from Korea, and his father, an ex-solider who seems to want Park to be more manly.  His parents are so in love and openly express their affection for each other.  Park loves music and wearing black and is a very heartfelt, sweet character. Yet, Eleanor constantly pushes him away, and even when he risks his own safety to save Eleanor's life, she insists that they just "stop."  Which is pretty much what they do.  I understand that Eleanor has lived an inconsistent life void of love and compassion and nurturing, but when she finally meets somebody who is caring, she insists on just making things "stop."  

So, I did get a little frustrated with the characters, but perhaps if I stood in their shoes, I would understand their rationale for feeling the way that they do and making the choices that they make.  Eleanor felt like she would be forever stuck in an unloving, unjust world wearing clothes that didn't fit her and showering behind a door made from a sheet, but she didn't seem keen on finding a way out until she absolutely had to.  She was portrayed as being a creative, smart individual, so I wonder why she and Park never even broached the topic of college or the future.  I suppose that just wasn't a part of her life; her life was so inconsistent and complicated that focusing that far ahead in the future was impossible.  Perhaps she didn't even know what there could be to focus on because she didn't know what dreams were possible to have.  I once read an essay in which a teacher explained that, yes, it's wonderful to encourage our students to dream.  But it's also important to keep in mind that not all of our students are aware of what they can dream about!  Some of my students might be living in situations similar to Eleanor, who admits that her goal is to "make it through the night."  This book allowed me to be more empathetic to those situations and also reminds me how important it is to teach my students to not only dream but to show them what there is to dream about.  Having just read Looking for Alaska, I am reminded of Alaska's words that people dream about the future to forget about the present.   In the case of Eleanor and her classmates, they fall in love to escape the present, as that seems better than everything else for them and thinking about the future is questionable and/or scary. 

Reading Eleanor and Park also reminded me of the famous forbidden love between Romeo and Juliet.  Except in this case, Park's family is wealthy in every sense of the word and welcomes Eleanor into their lives, while Eleanor's family is complicated and unloving and acts as if a girl having a boyfriend is illegal.  And nobody dies in this story, either.  But ultimately, Eleanor and Park do want to be together, but Eleanor's past experiences with love and her lack of self-confidence make their union a - well - complicated one.  Not to give away any spoilers, but there is a glimmer of hope in the last two paragraphs of the novel, which saved me from dire disappointment after reading.  Interestingly, Eleanor and Park actually talk about Romeo and Juliet on the bus one day, with Park claiming that its fame comes from the fact that it reminds readers what it feels like to be young and in love; Eleanor, on the other hand, says that it makes fun of love by making two wealthy teenagers fall head-over-heels in love in a matter of hours.   

Overall, the characters in Eleanor and Park are well-developed and offer me insight into a decade and home situation that I know very little about.  The book was engaging, and while I felt agitated with the characters from time to time, the end of the book leaves me feeling hopeful.  If you would like to learn more information about Eleanor and Park, visit the website, or check your local library to see if its available! 

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