The much-banned YA novel The Outsiders turns clunky prose into deep emotion
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With series like the Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games books becoming international mega-bestsellers, young-adult fiction is now a thriving genre that draws readers of all ages. YA Why? is a periodic book-review column that looks at YA releases from the perspective of what they do or don’t do with familiar YA tropes, whether they appeal to a broad audience or strictly to the younger set, and why we might want to read them.
Book: The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, originally published April 1967
Plot: Set in Hinton’s hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1965, The Outsiders centers on Ponyboy Curtis, a 14-year-old living with his two older brothers: 20-year-old Darry, a former football player who assumed responsibility of the family after a car crash killed their parents; and 16-year-old Sodapop, a pretty-boy dropout who works at a gas station. The three brothers are part of a gang, along with several others: Sodapop’s best friend Steve Randle, wisecracking Two-Bit Matthews, hardened New York transplant Dallas Winston, and jumpy Johnny Cade, who endures the abuse of alcoholic parents. As kids living on the poor East Side of town, they’re called Greasers, due to their long, greasy hair.
Their rivals are the Socs, “the abbreviation for the Socials, the jet-set, the West Side rich kids,” who, with nothing better to do, spend their time picking fights with Greasers. After a couple of Soc girls named Cherry and Marcia meet Ponyboy and Johnny at a drive-in movie, their drunken Soc boyfriends—who recently beat Johnny within an inch of his life—confront the guys for hanging out with their girls. In an ensuing fight, one of the Socs tries to drown Ponyboy in a fountain, and a terrified Johnny stabs Cherry’s boyfriend, Bob. Ponyboy and Johnny seek to escape Tulsa to avoid repercussions, but end up setting off a larger Greaser/Soc gang war.
Series status? The Outsiders is a standalone novel, though most of Hinton’s books are interconnected stories about various Greasers set in the same fictional universe in and around Tulsa. Several characters from The Outsiders have cameo appearances in the subsequent novels That Was Then, This Is Now and Tex.
YA cliché: Though it isn’t a Romeo & Juliet-style tragedy, The Outsiders does employ the stalwart “rival gangs from opposite sides of the tracks” backdrop for the story. Ponyboy is the youngest member of his gang of Greasers, but also the most academically gifted, with the best chance of raising himself out of his surroundings instead of being trapped by them.
Bad sign: Hinton wrote The Outsiders when she was 16, which is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it doesn’t just approximate the perspective of an adolescent—it’s actually written by someone who would understand that point of view exceedingly well. At the same time, it’s rough and shoddy in its technical aspects. It’s a first book that reads like an extended diary entry. The narrative conceit is that Ponyboy writes his harrowing story down for a school assignment, so the stream-of-consciousness passages and timeline cross-cutting make sense, but it’s still a noticeably juvenile work, for better and worse.
Good sign: Hinton supposedly decided to write The Outsiders after growing dissatisfied with the state of literature written for young adults in the ’60s, and to her credit, it does blend a great many archetypal themes together into a plot that churns forward in spite of jerky motions and redundancy. The class conflicts, family turmoil, and survival elements are contrasted with wistful and romantic scenes between Ponyboy and Cherry Valance. In its finest moments, The Outsiders finds a lyrical groove as Ponyboy narrates simple yet insightful philosophical tangents about fleeting happiness, entrenched socioeconomic inequality, law enforcement targeting the poor, and the ethics of violence. He’s struck by the gravity of his situation with poor Johnny, pausing while on the run to finally step back and observe: “Then for the first time, really, I realized what we were in for. Johnny had killed someone. Quiet, soft-spoken little Johnny, who wouldn’t hurt a living thing on purpose, had taken a human life.”
Young-adult appropriate? The Outsiders is notoriously one of the most-challenged young-adult books ever written, but for a novel ostensibly about gang violence, it’s fairly tame. All of the cursing is merely hinted at in comedic fashion instead of fully written out. There’s a lot of underage drinking, but age restrictions were different in the ’60s, and particularly lax in more rural states like Oklahoma. Pretty much everyone smokes cigarettes constantly, even Ponyboy, though the man who accompanies him to the hospital after he and Johnny save some kids from a burning church notes he’s too young to smoke. And though there is inevitable violence and death, Hinton never glorifies or revels in it. Before the big rumble, Ponyboy asks everyone else why they fight, concluding that his friends do it for fun, pride, hatred, or conformity; but he himself can’t justify fighting for any reason but self-defense.
Old-adult appropriate? It isn’t Romeo & Juliet or The Warriors, but what The Outsiders lacks in narrative complexity and graphic brutality, it makes up for in skillful genre-shifting. Like many young-adult protagonists, Ponyboy seems far older than 14 due to his environment, and the struggles of the Curtis family and their gang is compelling even when Hinton’s diction is simplistic. As for the book being applicable to modern times, that’s perhaps best summed up by what Cherry says to Ponyboy to explain how the Socs and Greasers are more similar than he thinks: “Things are rough all over.”
Could use less: Justification for the Socs. Is there ever a good excuse for kids who have everything to throw it all away to become miserable jackasses? Bob’s best friend Randy is an attempt to embody the saner side of the Socs, and round them out with more humanity as he tries to make peace with Ponyboy at several points during the novel. It works to a certain extent, and it furthers Hinton’s goal of displaying violence as petty and useless when everyone is just human at the core. But seriously, these kids have nice cars, dress like douchebags, and go around beating up the poor kids, and the excuse for Bob is that his parents didn’t have the backbone to say “no” to him? Come on, nobody should be shedding a tear for anyone but Johnny and Dally.
Also, a little less colloquial slang would be nice. Reading The Outsiders is nothing close to parsing a fabricated dialect like that of A Clockwork Orange or 1984, but a lot of the “Aw, shucks” and “boy howdy” really feels dated.
Could use more: Multidimensional female characters. The Outsiders features some truly complex male friendships and sibling bonds. Ponyboy is constantly navigating his feelings for his older brothers and friends, and that emotional journey is one of the more rewarding aspects of the novel. Though it’s reductive to retroactively slap the Manic Pixie Dream Girl label on Cherry Valance, she’s really the only female character with any depth, providing a much more gentle side to the Socs than any of the boys. Still, she clearly has a thing for bad boys, as she whispers to Ponyboy that she “could fall in love with Dallas Winston,” and, “I hope I never see him again, or I will.” The one girl who seems to be able to think for herself and isn’t just an object is a sucker for the boy from the wrong side of the tracks.
For fans of: Stories of socioeconomic struggles, the classic “two households” grudge match—think West Side Story, but darker and without the celebration of cultural heritage—or the work of children’s author Jerry Spinelli. Even fans of such wildly different stories as Pretty In Pink and The Warriors—which was released as a novel in 1965 and as a movie in 1979, four years before Francis Ford Coppola’s Brat Pack-sparking Outsiders film—can find traces of both in The Outsiders.