Friday, 1 August 2014

"The Outsiders" by S.E. Hinton

 “Things were rough all over, but it was better that way. That way you could tell the other guy was human, too."

I've mentioned her enough so far that I think it's only right to do a post on this misunderstood book, her first and still most popular. I'm not the only one who has been influenced by this book, as basically the entire young adult genre was created simply to classify this novel (and keep it away from "real" novels for "proper" people, no doubt) which has continued to misrepresent not only the book's intent, but the author's entire body of work.

You see, Mrs. Hinton wrote this book when she was fifteen, which, of course, meant that it was aimed at children since you can only write for people the same age as yourself. It also features violence that is not gratuitous, but since it features it at all, that means that it is an inherently immoral book. The main characters are also children (late teens, mostly) with an absence of adult characters which, somehow, means that it is a screed against parental authority.

Oh yes, and because certain kids drink (mostly the older ones, again) and smoke, that it advocates those things instead of pretending they don't exist or dealing with the issue. Basically, this book is full of anarchy and revels in sin, making it the worst thing a child could ever possibly read.

The problem with those assertions? None of them are true. They all emerge from people who have never read the book.

More after the break.

The Outsiders was written, as far as I can ascertain from what I've read, because she was tired of reading what was being made for girls her age (since boys apparently didn't read then) at the time. She didn't want to read the current books about teenagers whose only worry is getting a date for the Fall Formal (whatever that is . . . I've never been to a high school dance) and studying for the next exam. That was what she was saddled with as a teenager at the time.

Truly the literature children deserve, no?

No worries of mortality, meditations of good and evil, growing up and the end of childhood, or the eternally distant wonder of what the future holds. Just fluff. For any child who was an avid reader at the time, I can only imagine that it was frustrating. This is someone who was reading material like Gone With The Wind and The Great Gatsby as a fifteen year old girl, and who knew kids like herself who lived lives with actual hopes, dreams, fears, and problems outside of the trivial.

So what did she do? She started writing a book about kids like her who had the issues she and others like her had, and it ended up connecting with people all over of all ages.

The book was never intended to be written specifically for kids, they were just who it was marketed to. And reading the book, you can't escape the impression that she is not writing to any audience in particular (unlike her follow-up, which entirely gives that impression at all times from forced social commentary that has absolutely nothing to do with the plot to a character actually saying that adults don't understand kids in a dramatic speech . . . NONE of which is present in this book.) She is merely writing to anyone who will listen to the story.

Ponyboy Curtis lives on the poor side of town and is part of a group known as "The Greasers" who are tough guys who hate the rich kids for being rich. Their enemies are called "The Socs" (pronounced "Socias") who we learn are kids who were made to feel guilty for being fortunate, and hated The Greasers for reminding them of how much better they have it. The entire story hedges on Ponyboy and his small band of friends as they figure out exactly the difference between the two and in good and evil, which is not status, but in actions. At the end of the story, Ponyboy grows into realizing what is truly important in life, and is one step closer to becoming the person he wants to be. A real tough guy. A real man.

His friend, Johnny, is poor and his parents are abusive, but when he makes a very bad mistake, it is Ponyboy's job to protect him from further harm. What ends up happening is the real world, where good is not always in material rewards and where evil is not always in a jail-cell sentence.

 “But Dally, heaters kill people!"
"Ya' kill 'em with switchblades too, don'tcha?”

For a fifteen year old, the author wrote a few quite memorable characters in Ponyboy Curtis, Johnny Cade, and the rebel with the James Dean streak, Dallas Winston. Not to mention the other members of the group from Sodapop Curtis (Ponyboy's brother) to Two-Bit Matthews, each character has a hardness to their character, and also a warmness that is impossible to not fall in love with once you get to know them.

But they don't always make the right decisions. As the story goes along, some end up striking out at sock-puppet stereotypes to deal with their problems, others try to ignore them, others surpass them, and others are destroyed by them. Losing his parents at a young age, Ponyboy has to sort this out himself with only his makeshift family of two older brothers and tight-knit group of friends by his side. It isn't that the book is anti-adult, but that the presence of adults in the story would fundamentally change who these people are and would alter the story as it currently is.

In fact, there is one scene with an adult after a character does a very brave and noble thing that pretty much says it all. Ponyboy sees the adult sitting down and thinks he will call him Greaser scum or something of the sort, but the adult is simply confused at how he did what he did in the first place and has no idea what a greaser is. It is then when Ponyboy really realizes the small world he lives in. He is not in war, but a schoolyard fight that grew out of hand.

This is, in fact, the first adult to tell him that smoking is bad for his health, something that no adult had ever actually told him before. He is the only real adult in the story, and yet he offers exactly what several of the characters want above all, a role model. Though several characters outright reject this notion later in the story, Ponyboy and his brothers respect adults quite a bit.

It's a simple scene, but it speaks more to the effectiveness of good parental role models than any of the (few) bad examples the book might have to offer otherwise. Ponyboy and Johnny even try to attend church at one point but end up stopping because their friends can't help but make a scene there. That is simply who they are, but these are kids that are trying their best to succeed with what they have and what they understand. Again, it's quite remarkable how misread this book has been over the years.

The main complaint, of course, is that it's inappropriate for kids. But, isn't that a parental choice? "Inappropriate" when it comes to storytelling is not always so black and and white, when the story has value. I read this book at thirteen when my life was in a very bad spot and it inspired me to keep taking the punches and exit out the other end of my dark tunnel. Then again, I was a dedicated lover of stories at the time and have always looked deeper than the surface when I would absorb one.

And once more, I must repeat, this book was written for a general audience by a fifteen year old girl and polished until she was sixteen. It was not written to corrupt youths. It was not written for a young adult demographic as there was not one in existence at the time. As a result, it holds up as an excellent read for adults, as well.

There is no pointless despair. No sex scenes. No nudity. No drug usage or promotion. No whining or pandering to emotionalism. It has none of the flaws future young adult novels would absolutely entrench themselves with and, as a result, is still remembered where those books were quickly forgotten. The ending is ultimately very cathartic and keeps the reader hopeful, another contrast for the "genre" and is well worth discussing with kids or your peers. It is an inherently moral book.

Ponyboy starts the tale hating the other side, then understanding them, but ultimately realizing that some conflicts can't be resolved by just understanding your enemy's point of view. Their problems go deeper down than that, as despite everything he has gone through, he does not get the girl, members of the feud run away from the conflict instead of dealing with it, and he is ultimately left back in the same position he was in before. While the Greasers and Socs might eventually put aside their differences, there will be others to take their place.

Nothing has changed on the surface, it might never change, but everything underneath has.

Yes, there are fight scenes. The fighting is mainly hashed out between two sides of a feud that understands nothing of the other, and by the end of the story the conflict is realized for what it is by several of the characters on both sides. Yes, there is death. Again, it is a natural result of characters' actions and never for shock value or to moralize. This is keeping in line with every classic novel that has ever been written.

As I said, it is inherently moral. Compared to nowadays, with a genre absolutely swimming in sickness, it should be easier to see that than ever before. But still, I see parents who have never read the book screaming that this book is an immoral mess of violence and gang activity simply because of how it was advertised decades ago.

Parents, read this book before condemning it first. Please. You will be pleasantly surprised with what you find here.

 “I've been thinking about it, and that poem, that guy that wrote it, he meant you're gold when you're a kid, like green. When you're a kid everything's new, dawn. It's just when you get used to everything that it's day. Like the way you dig sunsets, Pony. That's gold. Keep that way, it's a good way to be."

This comes from Johnny after he berates another character for bragging about beating another up. After said character gets confused, he turns to Ponyboy and says this famous quote above. Be childlike in life, but not childish. I find it hard to believe anyone could find a character like Johnny Cade despicable on any level.

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