I chose to read The Outsiders for a couple of reasons:
1. One of my good friends at work said, “Stay gold, Ponyboy.” to me and I was super confused. Hence, a conversation around this book began.
2. The Outsiders is an integral part of character development in Fangirl. And we all know how much I love Rainbow Rowell.
3. While I have never seen more than some clips of The Gilmore Girls, I know Rory and her reading is dear to my heart. And The Outsiders is one of the 339 books it is alluded she is reading through the series.
Then, the book appeared on my library recommended list. It was time.
The Outsiders is a classic story with an incredible origin story of its own. Our story follows Ponyboy Curtis (yup, that’s the name on his birth certificate), a 14-year-old Greaser whose parents have died recently in a car crash. He lives with his older brothers Sodapop, who is a high school drop out, and Darry, who works to pay for everything the boys need to live together, even though he could have gone to college on a football scholarship. Yet, because they wear hair grease, can’t afford nice clothing, and come from the wrong side of the railroad tracks, they are all labeled as hooligans.
Of course, they have a gang– mostly buddies, but they do carry switchblades and like to get in a fist fight. Who do they fight? The Socs, or Socials, obviously. The kids from the right side of the railroad tracks. The kids who have money, and nice clothing, and cars, and drink instead of smoke.
So what’s the catch? Isn’t this just a book about the Haves and the Have Nots? Nope. Because Ponyboy is a Greaser who hates violence, who gets good grades, loves to read, and is a track star. This book is about looking beyond what you can see and really getting to know a person. It’s about understanding that humans draw arbitrary lines in the sand and make a stand. Those lines and alliances are important to us, so important to us we will risk our lives to protect them– but they are still arbitrary.
S.E. Hinton’s novel revolutionized young adult fiction. It’s the first YA book that presented adolescents by their own standards, and not by what adults decided adolescents should be presented as. And this is where the interesting origin story comes in: S.E. Hinton is Susan Eloise Hinton. She started writing The Outsiders in 1965, when she was 15. Growing up in a school with gangs very similar to those outlined in her novel, S.E. Hinton wanted to share some of her personal observances. Hinton observed a Soc jumping out of a car and beating up a kid just because he was a Greaser. Infuriated, she went home to write.
When Hinton was 17, the book was finished. It just so happened that one of her friend’s mothers was a children’s book author. A draft made it to the mother, who in turn sent it off to an agent in New York. Hinton received a contract to publish the book on her graduation day. This makes our story for adolescents, by adolescents, written by an adolescent. And for 1967, that was ground-breaking.
The story of Ponyboy is fast moving and involved. We begin with a leisurely walk home from the movies, and eventually, there are fights, people escaping crime scenes, saving children from burning building, court dates, hospital stay and more. Ponyboy is a lover of film, art, and the written word, and we can tell from the way his story is portrayed. Ponyboy has intense emotional connections to the events taking place, but as the youngest member of the gang, he is constantly trying to hide those emotions. In some ways, this makes him a narrator akin to Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye.
The rest of the characters are powerful and real, as well. Ponyboy’s relationship with both his brothers grow significantly within these pages. As do the relationships all the gang members have together. We get to see relationships that didn’t exist before the novel began to cultivate as well. But, my favorite part is observing the confusion Ponyboy has watching other relationships.
The Soc girl, Cherry Valance (love that name) is a complete mystery to Ponyboy. She has a fairly small part in this novel, but the mystery of her relationship with Dally and Bob speak volumes to me. Ponyboy is 14. What does he understand about women, let alone the things that attract them to others? She is strong and independent and willing to speak her mind. She seems to know herself fairly well but contradicts that regularly. It’s just like being a kid again.
This is a powerful and eye-opening book, but I never fully got into reading it. I love reflecting on it (obviously) but reading in the moment felt like a chore. The writing never grabbed me. Yet, I read the book in only two sittings. Why? Because I was nervous that if I put the book down a second time, I’d never pick it up again. And I knew that would be a disservice to both the book and to myself.
At the end of the day, The Outsiders is just about a kid who is trying to follow his moral compass and figure out who he is while fighting the expectations and restrictions set by society, friends, peers, family, and even himself. This is a book highlighting that we are all just people:
We see the same sunset, and that while we are the ones who create the divides between ourselves, we can also be the ones to challenge them.
It’s hard to imagine next year this book will turn 50. Do yourself a favor. If you haven’t read it, go do so now.