Friday, April 19, 2013

Classic Fiction: The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

This week I decided to return to the land of the classics with S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders. This is yet another classic that I somehow missed out on as I was growing up, so I am once again playing catch up. And while the first few lines made me feel as if I was in for a disappointing journey similar to J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, I was pleasantly surprised by the direction the story turned.

The Situation: Ponyboy Curtis (yes, that is his real name given to him by his parents) lives with his two older brothers, Darrel and Soda (also his real name). Their parents were killed in a car accident, so at the young age of 20, Darrel, or Darry, has taken on the responsibility of keeping himself and brothers clothed, fed, and out of the public eye so there will be no threat of them being split up. But that isn't the only threat the Curtis boys have to look out for. In their town, there is an ongoing war between the upper class West Side Socs, and the lower class East Side Greasers, and the Curtis boys are Greasers. Along with Steve, Two-Bit, Dallas (or Dally), and Johnny, the Curtis boys spend their days dodging cruel groups of Socs who seem to have nothing better to do than to find Greasers who have wandered away from the herd and jump them. Most of the Greasers can hold their own, but often it is four or five against one, and even the toughest Greaser can only hold on for so long.

The Problem: If the constant threat of being jumped by a Soc who already has it better than a Greaser in almost every way that counts wasn't bad enough, eventually, as will always happen in gang wars, someone goes a step too far. Someone is dead, and Ponyboy is on the run and honestly believes he may never see his brothers again. But even that doesn't cause the violence to end. In fact, a major rumble between the two gangs has been scheduled, and it actually seems possible for things to somehow become much worse.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel, and Hinton actually began working on this book when she was only 15 years old, and it was published when she was 18. The setting of the book is commonly said to be Tulsa, Oklahoma, but this is never explicitly stated within the novel, and the year seems to be around 1965. Tensions between the upper and lower classes is nothing new, and neither are gang wars, but something about Ponyboy's narrative voice made this story distinctly different to me. And while Ponyboy, and a few others, eventually come to the conclusion that all of this violence is for nothing, the most important thing to everyone seems to be that no matter what, your true friends are the ones that have your back. In fact, one day two Greasers may be cracking each others ribs, but the next day they'll fight on the same side against Socs should the occasion arise. For some of the Greasers, their fellow gang members are the only family they have to count on, and the loss of one of their own may hit them even harder than if they were to lose a relative.

And now for a fun fact: The Outsiders is often on banned books lists and was controversial at the time of its publication due to its portrayal of gang violence and the use of strong language and slang. Fancy that.

My Verdict: The book is only about 180 pages long and is worth the couple of hours it takes to read it. While Ponyboy and his friends can be incredibly frustrating due to the very obvious reality that their way of life can only lead to tragedy, I still couldn't help but cheer Ponyboy on and wish him victory. Even with only his 14 year-old unreliable narrative voice as the guide, I feel like I can believe him, and for some reason I just accepted what he was saying as truth, which is hard for me to do with most first person narrators (Ishmael, I am looking in your direction). And there is a lot that goes down in the 180 pages, and the book only covers a time span that can't be much more than three or four weeks...maybe more. With that much action occurring in such a short time, it would be easy for the contents of this book to enter into the realm of impossibility. But somehow, Hinton keeps everything pretty realistic. It could be because Ponyboy admits that no one is innocent, and plenty are guilty. And he isn't afraid to include himself among the condemned.

Favorite Moment: When Ponyboy is able to have a civil conversation with a Soc in his own home, and both are willing to admit that their way of life has an expiration date.

Favorite Character: It is tempting to go with Ponyboy on this one, but I think I'll actually go with his oldest brother, Darry. The kid is only 20 and has the world in his shoulders. He holds down a job, and keeps himself and his two younger brothers clothed, fed, and out of trouble...sort of. Sure they're eating chocolate cake for breakfast everyday (live the dream!), but he is doing much better than I probably would have in that situation.

Recommended Reading: Since many of the 20th century American classics I have read seem to be dystopian (weird how that worked out), and since I refuse to recommend The Catcher in the Rye to anyone ever, the next best book I could think to recommend was Foxfire by Joyce Carol Oates. Oates' novel features a girl gang in 1950s upstate New York. It isn't as easy a read as Hinton's The Outsiders, but it may be worth checking out.

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