The book begins with high school junior, Park Sheridan, lamenting about a girl. Where is she? Will she come back? It ends in the same way, but with the caveat about a postcard containing three words. What are those words? This is Eleanor and Park’s story. The narrative switches back and forth from Park to Eleanor. All of the characters are easily visualized by the reader.
The time is 1986, a less sophisticated time, in Omaha, Nebraska. Life moves more slowly there. There are no cell phones in every hand, no computers on every desk; it is simpler and less complicated than the current 2014. The infractions of students do not involve guns or social media or sexting, like they do today. The internet was an unknown entity. Bullying was just as overt, but not as dangerous or deadly.
Park and Eleanor Douglas meet on the school bus when she climbs on for the first time. When the ungainly Eleanor attempts to find a seat, the students make rowdy, cruel remarks. No one wants her to sit next to them. She was new, and she was weird looking; her shabby clothes were an odd mismatched mixture. She was big, encased in a man’s shirt, wearing several necklaces, and an assortment of scarves wrapped around her wrist, and her unusually bright red hair made her stand out in a crowd. No one knows who she really is, no one knows about her background, her poverty, her reasons for looking the way she does, no one seems to care. They were all just interested in tormenting “the new girl”, bestowing unflattering epithets upon her.
When Park Sheridan first sees her, he cringes. He tries to ignore her, but the taunts of the other students and the bus driver yelling at her to find a seat, move him. Sick of how the kids are acting, he signals her to sit. She does, but reacts coldly, ungraciously. Eleanor doesn’t want to seem weak or vulnerable; she doesn’t want to be pitied by this “cool” boy who is sitting next to her, and he doesn’t want people to think they are together, so day after day, they ignore each other. Yet they share classes together, and he begins to notice her more and more. She is different from the other kids. She doesn’t seem to care about what others think about her. She thinks for herself.
Little by little, Park realizes that on their bus ride to school, Eleanor is reading the comic books over his shoulder. After awhile, he begins bringing in comic books for her to borrow, and then a headset and tapes of his favorite music. He just leaves them on the seat for her and she takes them and returns them the next day. As time goes by, they begin to talk. They laugh together. He begins to appreciate her uniqueness, rather than being ashamed of it. She begins to feel lighter, happier, because someone likes her. Slowly, she lets him learn more and more about her. He hadn’t realized how poor she was, that she had no comic books, no headset, no small luxuries at all.
Not many people live like Eleanor, and she is ashamed of her life, frightened of her stepfather and embarrassed by her looks. Gradually, as she and Park develop a friendship and grow closer, she defies her mother and sneaks out to see him at his house, She pretends to be with a girlfriend. Her mom and stepdad would never have allowed her to be with a boy. Her mom made mistakes when she was young, and she didn’t want Eleanor to repeat them.
Eleanor loves Park’s home life. It is so normal. He has loving parents, parents who are devoted to each other and to him. He is an only child. She eats dinner there often. After an initial crisis, in which Park’s Korean mom exhibits some blatant racism, announcing that she doesn’t’ want that “crazy white girl” in her house, Park’s home becomes her sanctuary, as his mom repents and welcomes her. Her other siblings know about her “boyfriend” from other kids in school. Jealous of her freedom and the little gifts she has been getting, they insist on sharing them in exchange for their silence. Eleanor realizes that she will eventually be caught and all hell will break loose when that happens.
Eleanor’s home life leaves a lot to be desired. She has been hurt deeply by her mom. She went along with her stepfather, Richie, allowing him to throw her out of the house for a year, and Eleanor has only just been allowed to return. She has little in the way of creature comforts or basic necessities. She has very few clothes, no toothbrush, no telephone. She lives in a tiny house with no privacy. The bathroom has no door, so she has to wash up before her stepfather comes home. It is often hard to maintain proper hygiene. Her mom puts vanilla behind her ears; it is cheaper than perfume and smells good. All five children sleep in one room, without enough beds, so several sleep on the floor. If one wets the bed, it is as if they all do! Once she had a happy home, a home where freshly baked cookies were waiting for her when she arrived home from school, a time when her beautiful mom was cheerful, but now she has to cope, not only with the bullying at school, but with a drained mom who also lives in fear of her stepfather, who is physically and verbally abusive.
At school, the students call her names like “big red’ or “raghead”. Eleanor discovers that someone is leaving foul-mouthed notes in her locker and writing obscene notes on her books. She scribbles them out to hide them from Park. She suspects that Tina, Park’s old girlfriend, is doing it because she is jealous. She tolerates all of this in silence. Finally, Park, unable to stand the way she is being taunted, defends her in a terrible fist fight with Steven, Tina's current boyfriend. He is a big bully, in stature and behavior. Park gets suspended. His dad, however, is proud of him for standing up for what he believed in, for protecting Eleanor.
One night, when Eleanor returns home, she finds her brothers and sister asleep in a room that has been ransacked. She knows she has been discovered. There is broken glass on her bed, her tapes are unraveled, her private box, which holds her few treasures, is upended and empty. There is a filthy message written across the top of it in a hand she recognizes from the notes she has gotten in school. Tina is not her enemy. She realizes how really dangerous Richie can be. Her only recourse is to leave.
She tells Park that she has to run away and explains why. She is going to her uncle’s house in Minnesota. Park offers to drive her there, and with his dad’s consent, they take off. Eleanor isn’t even sure her uncle and aunt will believe her, will take her in, but she makes Park leave before she knows the outcome of her visit. Park returns home and for the next year, she neither writes nor calls. He pines for her while Eleanor tries to put him out of her mind, believing they have no future together. They are young and from different worlds. Although her life has improved significantly at her uncle’s home where she has creature comforts, goes to summer camp and becomes a more normal young lady, the reader is left wondering, will “Romeo and Juliet’s” love survive this ordeal? Will they reunite?
This book is a primer for responsible behavior. It teaches tolerance of those who are different and compassion for those who are suffering, especially due to circumstances beyond their control. If we only concentrate on the surface of things, we only learn part of the picture. An insecure child reading this book might gain the courage to fight the fears that torment, that interfere with a healthy interaction with others, with a healthy self-image. Being different can be a positive thing, can draw people to you; stressing your creativity and individuality can make being different a gift, rather than a burden. Reading this book, bullies might see themselves in the nasty kids on the bus and at school. Perhaps looking in that mirror they will understand how cruel and mean they have been and might change their ways. One thing is certain, this book will open a door to many conversations on proper behavior and on the rewards gained from a generosity of spirit, mind and purpose. One main character is an outcast the other is the “cool” kid in school. When their love blossoms, there is a powerful lesson to be learned. The outside of a person does not tell the whole story; it is the inside that is the measure of the man.
Note: Eleanor and Park is a YA novel that I was drawn to by the cover. It shows two heads connected by dual headsets. My husband and I, married for almost half a century, walk everyday, connected by a splitter which allows our headsets to listen to books as we take our constitutional. While some make fun of us, saying I have him attached by a leash, I say we are attached by our heartstrings. When Park first saw Eleanor, he thought she was asking for the taunts, because of how she looked, how she acted, how she dressed. He was a cool guy; he wondered, is everyone laughing at them? Should he pull away from her? He overcame those feelings because he had a kind heart and spirit, he was a good kid. He could see beyond his own ego, beyond the bullying around him into his own heart and into the heart of the girl sitting next to him. I think Eleanor and Park are also attached by their heartstrings. We all need to look deeper than the outside surface of things!