Book Review: The Outsiders
by S.E. Hinton
50th Anniversary Edition (originally published in 1967)
I didn’t read this as a teenager, and I feel like I should have. It would have been a different reading experience. I think that reading it as an adult and a librarian was a good idea, both because it corrected a gap in my knowledge, and because there were stretches of prose I genuinely enjoyed (both for story reasons and because of the construction of phrases). I picked it up last week because I had a teenager be absolutely aghast that I hadn’t read it. “But you’re a librarian!!!” Because he was so shocked that I hadn’t read the book that might be his favorite ever, and because I had seen so many other mentions of the book and strong feelings about it, I decided it was time to read it.
It felt like being in Ponyboy’s head, descriptions and thinking out loud and trying to grapple with essay writing vocabulary but also being and feeling honest. I could see some of the hurts and questions Ponyboy was wrangling with. There were a few passages where I wished I could reach into the story and give him a hug. Seeing him and his brothers and his friends, messing around and being brave, sometimes ridiculous… I could also see the closeness between them. And I appreciated Ponyboy’s thinking out loud about the social divide between greasers and Socs, to orient me into his world as well as what he thought and felt about what was important, what was at stake.
But it also felt distant to the point of anthropology….. can’t tell if the distance comes from the culture shift of being 50 years later, set in a small town…. or the way Hinton created the characters. An empathetic and curious outsider herself, doing important writing to humanize characters… but working from outside. A girl with parents, writing about orphans. Lovingly, but with moments of distance that came through as didactic. (My phone almost autocorrected “didactic” to soda. Ha!) There were passages of explanation that sounded kind of prim, kind of afterschool special lessons about what “good kids” do, what “getting in trouble” means, and about the economics that lurk underneath the divide between greasers and Soc’s.
There’s also the time that’s gone by since it was written. The edition I was reading had some fascinating extras: Copies of the letters between young Susan Hinton and her publisher as the book was being edited, some press clips of reviews and interviews, and some reminiscences from people who were in the movie. All of which helped me get a better sense of how many people really connected with this book, no matter what age they read it.
I don’t think it’s contradictory to describe this book as both honest and anthropologically distant from its characters, and to see both aspects as reasons to appreciate the book. Teenagers have a didactic streak and a rebellious streak and figuring stuff out and feeling, to do. Slang words and school-writing essay words bleed through and mingle in the way they talk to each other, the journals and thoughts they keep secret… Especially bookish kids who like school (Ponyboy rings true to my own memories in that regard, even though his life is so different in time and culture from my own memories). It’s a well written time capsule of teenagers… and a testament to what still resonates.
I’m very glad that I read this book. I’ve been thinking about it as I read, and now, days after. I’m really sorry that I missed out on the experience of reading this when I was 15 or 16. Of course, I have no way of knowing what I would think of it as a teenager. I’ve talked to friends who were assigned to read it in school, as well as some who read it on their own.
I have no way of knowing what experience I would have had as 15-year-old Elizabeth reading this for the first time. I remember being assigned The Catcher in the Rye, and acknowledging that the prose was well constructed, but really, really hating Holden Caulfield as a person. I’m pretty sure I would have liked Ponyboy and his brothers, and even found a way to connect with the rest of the characters, because of Ponyboy’s questioning, because his own emotions were so grounded in loyalty, and love, even if there was confusion to figure out. Would I have appreciated it the way I do now? Questioned it the way I do now? No idea. Can’t tell if I’m gold, green or some other color.