I first read The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton in 7th grade. It was one of the major book projects of the year, and I remember the teacher passing out a boxful of battered black paperbacks. I don’t think my copy is one of those, but it is the same edition—I can’t remember anymore where I got it, and to this day I can’t figure out which character is meant to be which on the cover!
The Outsiders is about Ponyboy Curtis (that’s his real name), and his friends, the Greasers. Not quite hoods, the Greasers are poor boys from the rough part of town, with a nasty reputation that’s partially deserved. Their sworn enemies are the Socs (short for Socials), the rich kids in town.
The plot is about Pony, his sad-eyed friend Johnny and tough guy Dally, and what happens to them all when an altercation with the Socs gets horribly out of hand. The book is really more about Pony’s growth than it is about the plot. It’s about how he sees the people around him and takes what happens to them to gain new insights on the world.
The voice is so strong in this book. It’s a shock to know that S. E. Hinton is female, and therefore was never a fourteen-year-old boy. There’s something wonderfully artless in the writing, the kind of effortless feel that probably requires a lot of work. There are moments that should be bad writing—when most of the characters are introduced, Pony spends a paragraph or two describing each one. Usually narration info-dumping to describe characters annoys me and takes me right out of the story. I quit reading a book once because it spent the first two chapters doing that. But it works for Pony. It doesn’t feel like a narrator telling us about characters—it’s Pony telling us about the people he knows.
All the characters are vividly drawn—hard-working Darry; lazy, good-natured Sodapop; hard-edged, angry Dally; and poor Johnny, beat up by life. I feel like I know all of them, and I care about them—which is actually kind of remarkable. Most of the people Pony knows, Dally especially, ought to be terrifying. They shoplift, they carry switchblades, and they have all the external signs of juvenile delinquents. But we get to see them from the inside, from Pony’s point of view, and it doesn’t really matter if they’re likable, or admirable—they’re Pony’s family. I hesitate to use the word “gang,” even though it’s the obvious one, because I think it has violent connotations a little beyond what the Greasers deserve. Let’s say they’re a pack, with all those connotations of loyalty.
The Socs aren’t portrayed as extensively, but we do meet a couple of them, especially dreamy, tough Cherry, who gives us insights into the desperate, bored recklessness of the Socs.
I suppose the ultimate messages of this book are not too radical—it’s tough all over, don’t judge by what a person seems to be, don’t become jaded by the world. But they’re good messages, and they’re conveyed through some of the most alive fictional characters I’ve ever met.
And this book is responsible for one of the few pieces of poetry I’ve ever memorized: “Nature” by Robert Frost. It’s a lovely poem, inside an excellent, gritty novel.
Author’s Site: http://www.sehinton.com/