REVIEWING THE OUTSIDERS: FRIENDS & FAMILY AMID GANG FIGHTS AND THE ETERNAL STRUGGLE OF CLASS WARFARE

Book Reviewed: THE OUTSIDERS, by S. E. Hinton

Genre: Young Adult Novel

Published By: Originally by Viking Press, 1967; republished by Speak (of Penguin publishing) in 2003 and 2006 ($10.99 for paperback)

For my next review here at James’ Online Book Club I wanted to move on in a different direction from The Disaster Artist. Don’t get me wrong, for I loved that book and I will always love that book (and the film version was alright, though it clearly sanitized and glossed over much of the story). I will probably read and review other books that are similar to that one—in fact I know I will, for I have a couple of memoirs currently waiting on top of my To Be Read pile. But I wanted to shake things up a bit, and I wanted to at least lay down the groundwork of my intended purpose of the Book Club by reviewing as many books as possible, from a litany of different genres. With that in mind I went back to my shelf and picked up a short book, a classic in YA literature that I first read in the eighth grade. This book left a big impression on me when I first read it, and now I look upon the book with new eyes and a feeling of a long lost love come back to talk with me.

I’m of course talking about S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders.

Now before I go into talking about this book, I should warn the reader about the potential spoilers up ahead. I would feel bad about discussing important scenes and plot points, but seeing as how the book was published in the late sixties I feel like I’m safe in revealing such details. If you are truly worried about spoilers, I suggest you go and read the book before coming back and combing through my essay.

 Alright then, now on with The Outsider, whose story concerns a first-person narration by a 14-year-old “Greaser” named Ponyboy Curtis. Yes, that is his legal name, given to him by his parents; as of the opening chapter of the book, both of his parents are dead and he lives with his older brothers Sodapop and Darry. They are the poor kids, the grungy hoods living on the wrong side of the tracks in an unnamed town that’s obviously a fictionalized version of the author’s hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. As the story opens Ponyboy is walking away from the movie theater, wishing that he looked like the film star Paul Newman, when a group of rich teens—known as ‘Socs’, shortened from the word social. As he is beaten Ponyboy can’t help but think of his friend Johnny, who had a short while before received a far worse beating in a nearby park. More about Johnny will be discussed later.

Just as soon as the beating commences it is stopped by Darry and Soda, and then shortly after we are introduced to the rest of the gang, including Dally and Johnny, two young men with their own baggage and violent backgrounds who suffer accordingly. Each of them has their own beef with the Socs, but more importantly they are fighting against a social climate that just refuses to stop reminding them they will forever and always be less than dirt, simply because of that name placed on them: Greaser.

Ponyboy in particular finds himself in a tough spot, for he’s not like the others. He’s sensitive and intelligent, having cut ahead in school and taking high school classes even though he’s only middle school age. He loves to read and draw, and he loves to day dream about the sunset. Whereas for the other Greasers there is nothing higher than a rumble or a nightly petty crime, Ponyboy can feel a yearning in his heart—a yearning for something more, something deeper than what is presented to him in the here and now.

Ponyboy has two struggles battling against him over the course of the novel. The first is the ongoing conflict between the Greasers and the Socs, that just continues escalating to the point of supreme violence. The other is more familial, and it involves his love-hate relationship with his brother Darry. The older brother had to give up his college ambition in order to care for Ponyboy and Sodapop, and with their mom and dad gone he’s had to step up and take on the parental role as head of the house and disciplinarian. Both problems are given equal time, as they weigh equally on Ponyboy’s mind.

The novel takes its turn when Ponyboy and Johnny find themselves on the run after a run-in with the Socs ends with Johnny knifing someone in self-defense. They hide out in an abandoned church, where they read from Gone with the Wind and discuss the poetry of Robert Frost. The phrase “Nothing Gold Can Stay” gets passed around a lot. Suddenly a fire threatens a group of school children and the two boys become heroes, but Johnny lands in the hospital with severe injuries. Between this and the upcoming rumble against the Socs, there is almost too much for young Ponyboy to carry on his mind.

I dare not reveal much more of the plot, in case new readers come about to take up the book and enjoy it. But I can’t help but keep talking about this book, for it is just so good.

Hinton has written other novels besides this one, including Tex and Rumble Fish (also involving street gangs). But she will always be known for The Outsiders, a book that was turned into the Francis Ford Coppola movie in 1983 (starring Ralph Macchio). And even though the book has been repeatedly challenged in schools for its depiction of violence as well as for light language, the book is still passed around from student to student with high praise in word of mouth. I remember begging my dad to read it after I finished it the first time in middle school; reading it again I find myself wanting to demand that my old man put down his Louis L’Amour paperback and pick this one up instead. I’ll probably have to tell him through blinding tears; this book would make the toughest street kid want to cry.

All I can tell you is that this was a great novel, and well worth the price of admission. Go on to your local Barnes & Noble, or even your public library, and grab yourself a copy. I promise you won’t regret it.

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