Inside S.E Hinton’s The Outsiders
Run your finger down any list of seminal young adult novels and Hinton’s critically acclaimed novel of 1969 will be at the top. I’ve been meaning to read it since I first started researching young adult fiction back in 2014 but for reasons of prejudice and ignorance, anticipated that it would be a purely dutiful read - an academic obligation to demonstrate breadth of research in my chosen field of creative writing. That thought was misguided.
Hinton’s tale of brotherhood and rivalry between boy gangs from opposite sides of the socio-economic divide in a small American town had me utterly fixed from the first page and dropping large tears onto its pages not much further along. I was blown away by the directness of her language which spoke to me through time and culture and delighted by its clever yet subtle use of cultural references. The story is told through the voice of its central protagonist Pony Boy Curtis but describes a portrait of life for a group of boys on the cusp of adulthood figuring out that life isn’t fair. While some are born with money and privilege The Socs, and others struggle for the basics, living hand to mouth negotiating the impact of absent parents, low incomes, neglect and abuse - The Greasers. Each group suffers prejudice at the hands of the other each judging each other by surfaces. But as Socs girl Cherry Valance says, who develops a soft spot for Pony Boy, ‘it’s rough all over’. what seems like easy street from one perspective is never as straightforward as it seems.
Hinton’s characters are completely believable and her story, nearly 60 years on, holds the power to truly move. This is the first YA novel I’ve read as an adult and cried. Twice. Once when Jonny on he run asks if his parents asked about him and second when the injuries incurred during his heroic deed saving children prove fatal. It’s power lays in the simplicity of the telling, the authenticity of the story themes, the way she captures the voice of Pony Boy Curtis and her ability to render the individuality humanity of all characters. I confess I expected a different story, one that foregrounded style emotion, physiological insight and social
Story Close up: film and character perspective
One aspect of Hinton’s characterisation of Pony Boy Curtis struck a particular chord with me as it reflects something I have written into my protagonist, Taylor. We frst meet him leaving the cinema …Movie reference, seeing himself as a character in a movie. It’s become a well used trope, one still employed today, but Whereas Pony Boy’s cinematic preoccupation are concerned with appearances, style and identity, I’ve written a preoccupation with filmic story-telling itself into my character’s opening pages. One I’ve attempted to extend the film character reference narrative trope [I’ll tell you something about my character by identifying a character you already know from a well known film and show you have they are similar or not or aspire to be] by - a from of meta narration is you will from the protagonists point of view. A strategy that responds to my novels particular moment of history, post modern and meta narrational. Taylor’s problem one many of us face today with the tyranny of story – of how to tell her story. Important as it defines her not only to others but to her self. She considers one of the popular three act structure paradigm and tries to fit her story so far in to its simple architecture. Her Slightly hysterical energy, a symptom of mental health on the edge a result in part of trying to fit herself into pre-existing story structure models. Ones that don’t allow her to be herself.
This is a story of boy gangs and the limited options of violence and conflict their ecosystems sustain, Hinton addresses polarised modes of identity - domination or victimhood and shows us how these limiting narratives of masculine discourse are not only reductive but destructive.
Having put off reading it for some many years, not only look forward to reading it again more closely for the lessons the work provides on how to evoke deep responses from readers but also what of the other well young adult novels that have similar put off reading due to my own prejudice. What affective and challenging stories written for young adults might lay waiting for us out there?