YA Book Club: S.E Hinton’s ‘The Outsiders’
I will be honest, I have no recollection of reading this book when I was younger, although I probably did. What I distinctly remember, though, was watching the movie in a double-period in 7th grade, when half the class was on a field trip. In a major life imitating art moment, the field trip students had to come back halfway through the movie and watch it with us because a fight had broken out in their group, and they all had to return to the school—one of the boys had picked a fight with another about his mother (I only remember this because the mother in question was a high-profile member of the community) and all hell had broken loose. The irony of the situation was completely lost on all of us at the time, but it’s not lost on me now—The Outsiders is primarily about the senseless acts of violence boys commit against each other, because that’s just the way it is.
“The Outsiders” is told from the first-person perspective of Ponyboy Curtis, a greaser. An orphan who lives with his older brothers Darrel (Derry) and Sodapop—Ponyboy runs with the greasers because they’re his friends, but his heart particularly isn’t in the greaser way of life.
What is a greaser? They’re the kids from the wrong side of the tracks, whose parents, if they even have them, may or may not care where they sleep at night. They get into trouble, shoplift, drink, have long hair, but generally keep to themselves unless their nemeses the socs are around. Socs are the anti-greasers. Rich kids from good homes who are dead inside. They stir up trouble and jump the greasers basically just to feel something, anything. Their parents are equally uninvolved in their lives, but because socs aren’t poor kids, they’re generally seen as “good kids” by the society at large.
Ponyboy is a bit of a dreamer, who would rather be at the movies or staring at a sunset instead of shoplifting, drinking, and generally carousing. His brothers are, to a lesser extent, the same way. Derry is 20 and was a star athlete in high school and had a promising future, but then his parents died, so he gave up dreams of college to work two jobs so that Ponyboy could have a chance—but since Ponyboy is 14, he doesn’t understand this and thinks Derry is riding his case all the time. Sodapop, who is 16 (almost 17,) happy-go-lucky and gorgeous, is a dummy by his own admission, and dropped out of school as soon as he could, to get a job at the local gas station because it made him happy. (Side note: Rob Lowe plays Sodapop in the movie, and…yeah. Pretty on the nose casting there.)
The cycle of violence between the socs and the greasers is what “The Outsiders” revolves around, until one day it escalates irrevocably. Johnny, the “pet” of Ponyboy’s group, is also the most gentle and kind of the greaser bunch. Johnny was jumped, beaten, and threatened by a group of particularly vicious socs, and as a result, always carries a switchblade on him. After the most savage member of the greaser group—Dallas, or “Dally”—harasses a group of soc girls at the movie theater, Ponyboy, Johnny, and their friend Two-Bit offer to take the girls home, to “their” side of town. As they’re walking to Two-Bit’s car, the girls’ boyfriends (socs who’ve been drinking) find the girls, who go with them in order to avoid a rumble between the two groups (in 2019 terms, that would be “an a*s-kicking” or “beatdown.”) Johnny is shaken, because that group was the same group who nearly beat him to death—and after Ponyboy has a fight with Derry about staying out too late, Ponyboy and Johnny walk around the city to cool off before Ponyboy goes home (Johnny is one of those kids whose parents don’t give a s*it about them, or where they sleep.) Unfortunately, Ponyboy and Johnny are attacked by the group of soc boys, still drunk. They begin to drown Ponyboy in a fountain, but Johnny has his switchblade on him, and ends up killing the ringleader of the soc group, Bob.
Afraid and scared of what will happen to them, Ponyboy and Johnny seek out Dally for advice since Dally is the toughest member of their crew. Dally tells them how to get out of town before the police come looking for them, and where to go hide out, so Johnny and Ponyboy end up in an abandoned church on a hill, outside of town in the country.
To lay low, both Ponyboy and Johnny change their appearance, cutting their signature greaser hair, and in Ponyboy’s case, dyeing it blond. Bored and alone, with only a paperback copy of “Gone With the Wind” to keep them company, Ponyboy and Johnny are ecstatic after Dally comes to find them about a week later. Dally, being the go-to thug of the town, was picked up by the police shortly after Bob’s murder, and he was able to insinuate that Ponyboy and Johnny were headed to Texas. As a result, the boys are able to leave their church hideout, and go into town for some real food since no one is looking for them there. On their way back to the hideout, Johnny vows to turn himself in so that Ponyboy can go back to his family, who miss him dearly. This plan is cut short when they reach the church and realize that it is on fire, and that a few local kids who were in the area for a picnic are trapped in the blaze. Not hesitating for a moment, Ponyboy and Johnny rush into the burning church to save the children. Ponyboy gets out of the blaze relatively unscathed, but a burning beam falls on Johnny’s back, and while he’s saved by Dally, his injuries put him in critical condition.
The boys are rushed to the hospital back in town—and there is a full-court press, along with the police, to greet them. Ponyboy, along with his brothers, is able to tell his side of the story, and is allowed to go home without any charges filed against him for Bob’s murder. Dally has minor burns on his body, and is required to stay in the hospital, but Johnny’s condition is grimmer. In the very least, he will never walk again, and is facing a manslaughter charge.
Ponyboy returns home just in time for the rumble to end all rumbles, which happens the next evening. While he was gone, the socs and greasers decided to have a fight that would set territory boundaries once and for all. If the socs won, they’d be allowed to jump greasers in greaser territory (like what happened to Ponyboy and Johnny the night they killed Bob.) If the greasers won, the socs would have to stay out of the greaser side of town. Ponyboy, dumbly, insists on fighting in the rumble, and despite getting a concussion in the process, the greasers win and the socs must now stay away. Dally breaks out of the hospital to join in on the rumble, because he’s a dumb teenage boy, and after the greasers win, they all go back to the hospital to tell Johnny about their victory. Only Johnny is doing worse than he was before—and after he tells Ponyboy to “stay gold,” he dies. The Curtis boys go home but Dally loses his s*it, takes his unloaded gun, robs a grocery store, and heads to the Curtis house to hide out. He’s shot by the police in front of the Curtis brothers, in a suicide-by-cops scenario.
Now it’s Ponyboy’s turn to lose his s*it, which is understandable, because two of his friends died in front of his eyes, and oh yeah—he’s got a court case looming that will determine if he’s allowed to continue living with his brother or be sent off to foster care.
Ponyboy spends the next period in a fugue state, refusing to admit to himself that Johnny and Dally are dead. His court case comes and goes, and he’s allowed to stay with his brothers, but he doesn’t recover. His grades start to slip and he’s in danger of flunking his classes—he’s offered a Hail Mary by his English teacher that if he can write a good personal essay, he can pass the class. It’s not until he has (yet another) argument with Derry, and Sodapop loses his s*it and runs away from the house (kind of a theme with these boys) because he’s sick of always being in the middle of the two, does Ponyboy realize the impact his actions have had on his brothers. Derry and Ponyboy find Sodapop, and both brothers vow to argue less and stop putting Sodapop in the middle of it. Ponyboy realizes that he has to get his s*it together and stop putting everything on his brothers, and that he has to accept the reality of his situation. Bob, Johnny, and Dally are dead—but he’s not, and if he wants to make something of his life, he has to try—Derry has sacrificed his own future for his, and he must put in the effort at school to honor that. The book ends where it begins—the entire story has been Ponyboy’s personal essay for his English teacher and is a way for him to honor the memory of the slain boys.
Like I said earlier, I don’t have a lot of memories of this one when I was a kid, other than the movie—but the story certainly felt pertinent then, and even though I’m 34 and well past my teenage years, it feels like it would still hit home with teenagers now, too. It’s interesting to see concepts that we have names for in 2019, get explained via action in a book written in 1967. I mean, the entire damn thing could simply be called “A Study in Teenage Toxic Masculinity” but it doesn’t have the same ring as “The Outsiders” has, does it?
I really enjoyed reading this as an adult because the book came across as authentic and honest in its portrayal, which probably had something to do with the fact that Hinton was a teenager when she wrote it and was inspired to do so after watching one of the greaser kids she hung out with take a beating by a soc in her hometown in Oklahoma. Some things never change—although when I was a kid the adults in our lives were starting to interfere in the teenage cycle of violence (fighting in or out of school got you a suspension in my school district) but it didn’t really stop anything, did it? Those two boys still beat each other on the field trip. More than 20 years later, kids still fight. A poor little 10-year-old girl died from a fight in her classroom just last week, in South Carolina. Violence comes for us at any age.
That’s probably why the musical adaptation of “The Outsiders” is being developed to premiere in Chicago, next year. There’s a cycle to youth violence that feels helpless and timeless—and it’s something “The Outsiders” captured very well.
What do you think? Have any golden memories of Sodapop, Ponyboy, and the gang?
Next week we’re doing a total 180, because I need something a bit lighter, so we’re going to go back to the beginning of yet another gang, and one of the most important ones in my literary life. Yes, friends, we’re going to read Baby-Sitter’s Club #1, “Kristy’s Great Idea”. Until next week, stay gold everyone.
Header Image Source: Laurel Leaf Contemporary Fiction