Tag Archives: heroism

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Outsiders’

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.

Image: snazal.com

Image: snazal.com

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.

The cast of 'The Outsiders' movie (1983) Image: sf.funcheap.com

The cast of ‘The Outsiders’ movie (1983)
Image: sf.funcheap.com

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.

Image: fanpop.com

Image: fanpop.com

Book Review Saturday – ‘The White Darkness’

This week’s book is a relative ‘oldie’; the edition I have was published in 2005. However, I’ve chosen to review it because I am currently completely obsessed with the Polar regions, and also because Geraldine McCaughrean’s ‘The White Darkness’ was one of those books which made me really, truly want to be a writer.

I mean, I’d always wanted to be a writer. But this book, along with several others, opened my eyes to how imaginative a novel can be, and how emotionally affecting. Geraldine McCaughrean is a legend, of course, who has written more books than most people have read, and I’ll never be on a par with her, but still. Her way with words, and her ability to tell a story, are a huge inspiration.

Image: bonniesbooks.blogspot.com

Image: bonniesbooks.blogspot.com

The first cool thing about ‘The White Darkness’ is this: the main character, Symone, is hearing impaired, but it doesn’t hold her back from having the adventure of a lifetime. The second cool thing is this: she gets to travel to the South Pole as part of the story. But the third, and coolest, thing about this story is: it features Captain Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates. In case you don’t know who that is, I’ll tell you – Captain Oates was the famous explorer who is credited with saying ‘I am just going outside. I may be some time,’ on the ill-fated Polar expedition led by Captain Scott. The men were lost, starving, and dying of exposure, and Captain Oates felt he was holding them back, so he walked out into a blizzard in order to try to save their lives by forcing them to go on without him.

Tragically, of course, his sacrifice was in vain, because all the explorers perished anyway. His famous last words live on only in Scott’s journal. That doesn’t take away from the fact that it was an extremely brave thing to do, though, and it has gone down in history as an act of heroism.

In case you haven’t guessed already, I have a ‘thing’ for Polar exploration, and the story of Captain Oates has always interested me. Geraldine McCaughrean takes the character of Captain Oates – because the way he appears in this book, he is a ‘character’; it’s not the ‘real’ Captain Oates – and weaves him into the life of a modern teenager. Symone, you see, is in love with Captain Oates, and has been for years.

I have been in love with Titus Oates for quite a while now – which is ridiculous, since he’s been dead for ninety years. But look at it this way – in ninety years I’ll be dead, too, and then the age difference won’t matter. (Page 1)

Captain Oates – or, at the very least, an imagining of him – lives in Sym’s head. They talk to one another, and he keeps her company through some very challenging life events. He is her source of comfort and support, her advisor and her guide. She has lost her father and is under the influence of the decidedly weird ‘Uncle’ Victor, who is a family friend and not a blood relative. The story begins when Victor decides that Sym and her mother are coming with him on a trip to Paris. However, as they prepare to leave, Sym’s mother realises her passport is missing. That leaves Sym, and Uncle Victor, alone. And it isn’t Paris he wants to bring her to, either – it’s the South Pole.

So why does it emerge that Uncle Victor has hidden Sym’s mother’s passport? Why does he want Sym – and Sym alone – to join him in what turns out to be less of an exploration than a quest? Uncle Victor is looking for something, something he truly believes exists at the South Pole, and he’s willing to sacrifice anyone and anything, including Sym, to get to it.

In Antarctica, Sym’s relationship with her uncle begins to unravel, but – worse still – her connection to Oates begins to disappear, too. He doesn’t want to return to Antarctica, the place where he ‘died’; the trip causes him huge grief. It places a massive strain on their connection, the most treasured thing that Sym possesses. I love the way McCaughrean handles this plot device, because it’s clear that Sym knows Titus isn’t real – she knows he’s dead, and that the voice she hears in her mind isn’t really his. And yet she loves him, and she needs him, and there are hints dropped all over the place that there’s more to Titus’ voice than just Sym’s imagination. All in all, it’s a heartrending and emotional relationship and (speaking as a person who was slightly obsessed with W.B. Yeats as a teenager, despite the fact that he was quite dead at the time), one I could entirely understand and get on board with. Not only did it highlight Sym’s isolation and loneliness, but it also spoke of her loss – the loss of her father, the lack of a significant male presence in her life, and her desire for a love relationship which goes hand-in-hand with her fear of it – and, besides all that, the voice of Captain Oates is marvellous. Full of plummy English public-schoolboyness, it’s a voice I loved reading.

At the book’s conclusion, Captain Oates’ voice is the most real thing about the situation Sym finds herself in. When at her weakest, and near death, Oates is all she has. It’s truly a remarkable thing to read. It made me weep the first time I read this book, and the second, and the third…

I have never read anything quite like ‘The White Darkness.’ Sym’s voice is a strange one for a fourteen-year-old, admittedly: it’s a little too adult, in places, and perhaps a little too knowing. But perhaps that’s to be expected when the character is bookish, shy, socially isolated, lacking in friends, and obsessed with a long-dead man. She’s apart from her peers, and it shows in everything she says and does. I loved her, and I loved the way McCaughrean writes about her, and I loved her version of Oates.

‘The White Darkness’ is an odd and different little book, but it’s one I love. If you’ve read it, I’d love to know what you think of it. If you haven’t, maybe you’ll check it out and let me know whether you liked it.

Happy reading!

Captain Lawrence 'Titus' Oates.  Image: artblart.com

Captain Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates.
Image: artblart.com

Slaying the Dragon*

It’s strange how significant everything becomes when you’re facing a mortal threat. Every step, every breath, every thought, every decision becomes invested with new importance. Everything seems slow. Your breathing sounds too loud, and the rushing of blood in your ears makes you light-headed. The morning breeze ripples through the flags overhead as you make your way into the courtyard, already covered with an inch of sawdust, and you feel the weight of your armour pulling on every muscle and sinew in your body. A few yards ahead of you, a sword is placed, point-first, in the hard earth.

Your guts turn to solid ice as you hear the beast’s first roar, loud as a gash being torn in the face of the earth itself. It makes your knees want to bend of their own accord, and it makes your head want to bow. You have to fight the urge to crumple before it. Inside your metal visor, nobody can see you weep, so you let the tears come. Then you remember there is nobody here to see you, anyway; no friendly faces, nobody to guard your sword-arm.

There is only you, and the dragon, and the dragon is coming fast.

Image: john-howe.com

Image: john-howe.com


Sometimes, in literature, dragon-slayers live; most of the time, however, they die. Dragons are the ultimate enemy, the one true test of a warrior’s prowess. So powerful that they get the better even of men like Beowulf, the greatest hero of his age (and ours, arguably), dragons are not to be trifled with. At all times, they are to be taken seriously, and they can never be underestimated. Waking one is a complicated business, and slaying one more complicated still. It’s best to leave them unroused altogether, and let them get on with slumbering and you on with living.

Sometimes, though, they wake of their own accord.

Facing doubt, in many ways, reminds me of dragon-slaying. It’s just you and the dragon, eyeballing one another over a sheaf of paper or the thin film of a computer screen; you hear its hissing voice in your mind, laughing at you for having the cheek to think you are worthy of putting words on paper and joining the ranks of ‘those who write’. The dragon is bigger than you, more powerful than you, and far more frightening than you can imagine. ‘I have slain mightier than you,’ it gurgles. ‘I have devoured warriors who could snap you like a twig!’ There’s nothing you can say to this, because you know it’s true.

It’s all too easy to back down from the doubt-dragon, and let it live inside your computer or – worse – inside your mind for the rest of your life. It seems like the simplest thing to just give in and turn away from its jeering, toothy grin, to walk away while doing your best to ignore its taunts of ‘I told you so!’ It can feel like doing anything else is the height of foolishness, like you’re risking your life by engaging with it. The only safe option, you convince yourself, is to give in and move on.

But if you do that, the dragon wins. It doesn’t even have to lift a claw to defeat you – you’ve defeated yourself.

I feel a little like I’ve been swallowed by the doubt-dragon at the moment. I feel like I’m stuck somewhere in its gullet, not quite inside its foul and noisome stomach (where I will surely perish, prithee), but not far off. Everywhere I look, all I see are dead ends, and there doesn’t appear to be a way out.

Instead of giving up and allowing myself to be swallowed, though, I’m really doing my best to understand that I need to make my own way out. If you don’t see a way to escape, then you need to make one.

St Margaret slaying the dragon by attacking it from within. Image: greenwichworkshop.com

St Margaret slaying the dragon by attacking it from within.
Image: greenwichworkshop.com

My attack of the doubts has come about because I have to do some unpicking of ‘Tider’. I’ve managed to write myself into a place where the story is no longer interesting or holding my attention; it seems too flabby and far-fetched. As well as this, the setting is poor, the character motivations are illogical, and the structure is wrong. I know I’m writing a first draft, which gives you a bit more leeway to make errors like this, but if it leads to you losing yourself in a morass of darkness, then something has to be done before you reach a point where you can’t find your way back. It’s important to complete the first draft, no matter how hard it is, which means I have to rescue myself from the dragon of doubt before I’m lost forever in the labyrinth of its infernal intestines.

So, there’s only one thing for it. I’m hefting my sword, and I’m picking what looks to be the most efficient way out of this mess, and I’m punching on through. See you on the other side, with any luck…



*All dragons used in the production of this blog post were unharmed, and all dragon involvement was monitored by the Geatish Dragon-Lovers’ Association. Any encouragement to harm, slay, maim or otherwise interfere with the lives of ordinary, law-abiding dragons inferred through reading this post is unintentional, and regrettable.

Another Week…

Happy Monday, everyone.

Today, I’d planned to write about a short story I was working on over the weekend. This particular short story was pretty much all that was occupying my mind this morning as I woke up. I was intending to submit it to a major competition, and I thought it was reasonably good; I’ve drafted and redrafted it and it’s probably, in its current state, as good as I can get it. But I re-read it last night and realised something weird: I’m not sure whether I like it, or whether I hate it. Normally, it’s obvious to me whether I like something or not. This was strange enough, I felt, to warrant a blog post.

But then I heard the early news this morning, and learned that a young man from County Kerry, in the far south of Ireland, had lost his battle for life yesterday (Sunday). His name was Donal Walsh. Here’s an article about him which has reduced me to tears this sunny Monday morning. Here’s another. If you’ve never heard of Donal Walsh, I hope you take the time to read about him, and about the courage that drove him in his last months to speak out against the scourge of suicide among the young.

Once I learned that this brave boy had succumbed to the foul disease that has destroyed so many lives, I knew that a blog post that didn’t mention him would be a travesty.

Rarely in my life have I come across a public figure that touched my heart as much as Donal Walsh did. Young people in Ireland (and across the world) have, it seems, been turning more and more to suicide as an answer to the darkness that appears to be besetting their lives, and Donal was a light in that darkness. His message – ‘look, see, this is how beautiful life is. This is why it’s worth fighting for. I want to live, but I have no choice – you have a choice’ – has profoundly impacted Ireland, and, I hope, the wider world. In recent months and weeks, he has been appearing on TV chat shows, and on other media, to talk about his illness and his battle, and his belief in the power of the young to make choices which will illuminate the world. He always looked so well and healthy; I had no idea that he was so close to the end of his journey. News of his death has taken me, I have to admit, by surprise.

For a young man to face his own death so bravely is one thing; for him to spend his last months and weeks trying to save the lives of others is a heroism rare in our cynical old world. I never met Donal, nor did I know him personally, but I am proud of him for all he did, and for all his work will mean in the months and years ahead. Long may his legacy live, and long may his light shine.

RIP Donal. Image: irishexaminer.com

RIP Donal.
Image: irishexaminer.com

You, and I, hopefully, have another week, and another week, and another. We have many Mondays, many mornings, many opportunities to feel so tired we’re barely able to roll out of bed and many days when we’ll bounce awake, full of enthusiasm for the day ahead, many chances to do our work as well as we can, many days to spend with our loved ones, and as many moments as we could wish for to tell them we love them. We have time to achieve our dreams. In Donal’s memory, let’s all be lights in the darkness; let’s do all we can to help others to live. Let’s spend every second we’ve been given doing all we can to make the paths of others a little smoother. Let’s never forget how lucky we are to have a choice.

Have a wonderful Monday.