07 May Book Recommendation: The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
The Outsiders is by and large a young-adult classic that has aged quite gracefully in time. The novel was both written and set in the mid-1960s, and although it reads that way, the story and characters still resonate with people today. The Outsiders is framed as a coming-of-age story and is told from the first person perspective of 14-year-old protagonist, Ponyboy Curtis. Ponyboy is a well-rounded lead-character; he’s tough yet sensitive, and intelligent yet rebellious. He reads a lot, gets good grades, and likes to watch the sunset; but he also smokes a shit-ton of cigarettes and gets into gang-fights with his fellow “greasers.” Ponyboy sees himself as a bit of a “hood,” but that perception is more indicative of the group-identity he is a part of.
The novel follows Ponyboy and his group of fellow juvenile delinquents growing up somewhere in Oklahoma (it’s never explicitly stated in the text). In this particular town there is an eternal war between two rival groups known as the “Socs,” and the “Greasers.” All of the hostility between the two stems from one fundamental difference in socioeconomic status; the Socs have money, and the Greasers don’t. The Socs, short for Socials, are generally the snobby-type with an overbearing sense of entitlement. They’re kind of kids that wear letterman jackets and drive around in Mustangs their parents bought them. The Greasers on the other hand are the foul-mouthed, leather jacket wearing, greasy-haired ghetto kids that always seem to be on the wrong side of the law. Now, there is good and bad on both sides here, and that becomes far more evident as the reader digs deeper and deeper into the layers of the novel. The power struggle and territory disputes between the two gangs escalates to a point of extreme violence in the story, and culminates in a series of tragic deaths for a few unfortunate kids that were simply taken far too early in life.
As a whole, the Greasers have to be one of the most compelling ensembles of characters to ever be created for young-adult literature. S.E. Hilton provides some of the most vivid character portraits I’ve had the pleasure to read, and despite their inherent similarities, the Geasers are actually a very eclectic group of individuals. First, there are Ponyboy’s older brothers, Sodapop and Darry (and before you ask, yes, Ponyboy and Sodapop are always asked about their unique names). Darry Curtis is the oldest member of the group at 20-years-old and was left to shoulder the load of supporting his brothers after their parents passed away in a car accident. He’s built like a football player, having played in high school, and he uses that strength and size in multiple lines of work, just trying to keep what’s left of his family together. Darry’s got cold eyes and he is always stern with Ponyboy, which causes a great deal of animosity between the two. Sodapop, however, gets treated far differently than Pony. Soda is a high school dropout that just didn’t have the attention span for school. He’s described as being as radiant and vivacious as a movie star, and he has an innate ability to actually make Darry smile. Sodapop is probably the most loving member of the gang and is always quick to come to his baby-bro’s defense.
Along with the Curtis’s, we have Steve Raddle, Dally Winston, Johnny Cade, and Two-Bit Matthews. Steve is Sodapop’s best friends since grade school, and although he’s often annoyed with Ponyboy tagging along with him and Soda, he is protective of Pony and loyal to the rest of the greasers. He and Soda work at a gas station together fixing cars throughout the book. Next, there is Keith “Two-Bit” Matthews, a character that truly earns his nickname. Two-Bit has what is probably the most stable home life in the entire gang, which really comes across in his wise-ass, laid back demeanor. He is a relentless jokester and has an uncontrollable urge to steal anything that isn’t nailed down. Lastly, we have the polar opposites of the crew, Johnny Cade and Dally Winston. Dally has the strongest gang-involvement in the group, having lived in the streets of New York before settling in Oklahoma, and he is definitely what you’d consider a “wildcard.” He’s legitimately proud of the police record he’s compiled and is the only member of the gang crazy enough to carry a gun. Contrary to Dally, Johnny is on the bottom of the greaser totem pole. He is the next youngest after Ponyboy at 16 and comes from a home with not one, but two abusive parents. Johnny is shy and kind of timid, but in a weird way, he idolizes Dally like no one else does.
The main characters of The Outsiders mirror the dynamics of any other group of close friends incredibly well. Everyone in the gang assumes a specific role; and while there may be certain people who get along better with others, and all relationships within relative, the group mentality is what comes across most clearly through the narrative. When reading The Outsiders, it’s important to continually remind yourself just how young these characters are. In reality, they’re all still kids: Ponyboy is barely 14, Sodapop is not yet 17, and Johnny is only 16 as well. Darry and Dally are the only characters to reach their 20s, and Darry has to be the adult for all of them. That realization really changed my perception on the severity of the situations these characters find themselves in, and made me realize the weight that being a Greaser often carries.
It is truly remarkable to see just how well The Outsiders stands up against modern young-adult fiction, as well as it does amongst its contemporaries of literary classics. S. E. Hinton wrote the majority of the novel while she was still a high school student back in the 1960s, which explains why a lot of the character descriptions are presented through exposition as opposed to being ingrained in the narrative flow like it is in today’s YA novels. I think the reason she’s able to get away with this outdated writing strategy is because her voice just fits so seamlessly into the setting and is incredibly authentic to the time in which the story takes place. Hinton writes with one of those enjoyable and addictive narrative voices that make it very hard for the reader to put the book down.
In addition to that voice, I think the brilliance of The Outsiders comes from its detailed themes and plot lines. For me, a lot of the story has to do with fitting in as a social outcast. It’s about finding a sense of “family” and “home,” and it’s about how people see themselves among their peers. What The Outsiders did best was take a common, maybe even outplayed lesson, and used some unconventional characters, settings, and storylines to teach said lesson. Hinton built a world that is foreign to the majority of what her target audience would be, but makes her characters feel very life-like by showing just how sensitive and vulnerable they can be despite the facade they put on. That realness makes it so readers can insert themselves into the story, learn from her characters’ transgressions, and better themselves from it. The Outsiders is a profound and exciting read that everyone who was not lucky enough to be assigned it in school should check out and learn from.
“Stay golden, Ponyboy.” Stay gold, indeed.