Yes, yes, I know. ‘The Outsiders’ has been around for far longer than I’ve been alive. So, you might reasonably ask, why am I only getting around to it now?
I don’t really have an answer. I always wanted to read ‘The Outsiders’, and it’s only managed to work its way to the top of my TBR pile in the last few months, and those are the facts. In any case, better late than never.
Among the many amazing things about this book is that it was written by an actual teenager, in the actual nineteen-sixties, and that teenager went on to write lots more books and is still alive, and still writing. Another amazing thing is: that teenager was a girl.
‘The Outsiders’ tells the story of Ponyboy Curtis, a fourteen-year-old in a dangerous world. Where Ponyboy lives, there are two groups – the Greasers and the Socs, or in other words the kids from the wrong side of the tracks and the upper-class, privileged set. Ponyboy is a Greaser, as are his brothers Darrel and Sodapop, who live by themselves after the deaths of their parents. Early in the book, Ponyboy notes that his oldest brother (Darrel, or ‘Darry’) shouldn’t have to work ‘like an old man’ as he is only twenty, but this is the reality of their lives. He is the main supporter of their family, and they are fiercely protective of one another. They, and the other Greasers, regularly rub up against the Socs, and these encounters are never pleasant. The novel opens with Ponyboy leaving a movie theatre having watched a Paul Newman film and being set upon by a bunch of Socs. He is rescued by his older brothers, which leaves him a confused mix of relieved and embittered. Later in the story, the boys meet some Soc girls, which begins the process of learning about ‘the other’; ‘The Outsiders’ of the title is an easily switched label, for of course the definition of who, or what, is ‘outside’ depends on where you’re standing. The girls are nice, and sweet, and treat them decently, which makes them wonder whether there is some good in the Socs after all.
Shortly thereafter, a serious rumble between the groups takes place, and a character is accidentally killed in the course of it. As a result, Ponyboy and his friend Johnny skip town, hiding out in an abandoned church some miles away where they spend a week with little to do besides reading ‘Gone With The Wind’ and wondering about their fate. When their friend Dallas – a volatile, charismatic, dangerous, compelling character – eventually comes to find them, he brings bad news: the situation between the Greasers and the Socs has become grave. The boys decide to return home to try to pacify things, but before they do, they realise the church is on fire – with children inside…
‘The Outsiders’ is a remarkable novel. There are things about the way it’s written which make it clear that it is the work of a young author – and, sometimes, a young female author – including passages of description, and a focus on the appearance of the main characters. Ponyboy describes himself within the first paragraph, comparing himself unfavourably with Paul Newman; several other characters, including his brothers, are described by him as handsome or some derivative thereof, which is a little unlikely in the mouth of a fourteen-year-old boy. I doubt the majority of fourteen-year-olds would notice whether or not their brothers could be considered ‘handsome’; somehow, I don’t think it would be important to them. However, this is my only slight gripe with the book. In every other respect, it is a masterpiece.
In its characterisation – particularly of the narrator, Ponyboy – it is touching, real, and honest. In its dialogue, it is rounded and believable. In its plot, it is moving, powerful and relevant, even now. Anyone familiar with ‘West Side Story’, and innumerable other teen movies and books since ‘The Outsiders’ was written, will not be taken by surprise by the plot overmuch; however, that doesn’t remove anything from the fact that the story of the Greasers and the Socs is as important now as it was then. I loved the people of this novel, especially the orphaned Curtis brothers and their attempts to live well and to conduct themselves in a way which would have made their parents proud. I loved their emphasis on hard work and education, and Sodapop and Darry’s paternal worrying over Ponyboy’s tendency to throw away his own potential. I loved the fiery Dallas, unhinged but loyal, dangerous but loving. I admired Johnny, despite his faults, and I loved the delicate way Hinton deals with the Socs, gradually unpicking Ponyboy’s lifelong conviction that they were out to get him, and nothing more.
Parts of the end of this book had me in tears. Hinton is wonderful at handling emotion – not only the heightened senses of a fight, but also the agony of loss and the punch of love – which is hard to believe, given that she was fifteen as she started to write this novel and eighteen by the time it was published. It felt real as I read, immersing me in its world from the very first line. The central message of the book – outsiders are people, just like us – is one that I don’t think the world has yet learned; there is a lot to be said about the way in which Hinton describes death and destruction in this book, and how it affects everyone. With every death, we are all lessened.
‘The Outsiders’ has been a staple on school reading lists for decades in the US, but it should be recommended reading everywhere. It’s one of the most enjoyable – if a little corny and clichéd in places – books that I’ve read in recent memory. If, like me, you’ve been meaning to give it a whirl, don’t delay any longer.