True Story: The Outsiders

I always feel kind of guilty if there’s a classic, seemingly essential title that I’ve never read. In the year or so since I’ve started the podcast, I’ve realized that there are a lot (like, a lot) of books that fall into this category.

In my defense, I pretty much always did my required reading in school. There were a handful of books that I was supposed to read for English class over the summer when I was a teenager that I may or may not have skimmed (I’m looking at you, Lord of the Flies), but for the most part, I read everything I was supposed to. This leads me to believe that my school district perhaps shied away from assigning some of the reading that’s commonplace for other districts. I grew up in a somewhat conservative area, so I’m sure that has something to do with it.

S.E. Hinton’s iconic The Outsiders definitely falls into this category. From chatting with several of my friends, I know that this book made at least a few required reading lists around the U.S., and a quick Google search confirms it. I don’t think that The Outsiders was even on my radar in high school, which goes to show how little my teachers and librarians were talking about it!

Over the years, I’ve heard that famous phrase “Stay gold, Ponyboy” over and over again in various pop culture moments, and I’ve heard The Outsiders — both the book itself and the movie adaptation — mentioned many times. That guilt came creeping in! How dare I call myself a book lover when I haven’t opened a story that’s clearly been so formative for so many?

As it tends to do, SSR came to the rescue. I was thrilled when Esther Zuckerman — this week’s guest, who I met for the first time when I was 17 and at journalism camp at Northwestern University — opted for The Outsiders on her episode of the podcast. Like me, she was never assigned the book in school, so we were both looking at the experience as an opportunity to finally get caught up to speed on some legendary American literature.

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Esther is an entertainment journalist, so it was really interesting to chat with her about the broader pop culture implications of The Outsiders, which is the story of Ponyboy and his role in a gang of “Greasers” in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The episode itself is a reunion of sorts, since Esther and I haven’t spoken in about a decade! We both had so much to say and probably could have gone on about this book for another hour or two.

So here it is, gang (see what I did there?) – my True Story on The Outsiders.

(Brush up on the details! Listen to the podcast episode about the book here, and read a summary of it here.)

The Outsiders presents a different kind of adult-free world than we’ve seen in other books for the podcast.

In the fifty-plus books I’ve read for SSR over the last year, I’ve picked up on a common theme: kids get to have much cooler adventures when they’ve found themselves plopped into a world without adult supervision. Often, this manifests in less extreme ways — in The Egypt Game, for example, all of the parents in the community have to work a lot, leaving the kids plenty of time and freedom with which to build their land of Egypt in the backyard of an old curio shop. Generally speaking, this absence of adults can read as an almost positive thing in middle grade and YA books… especially when parents or other guardians are still close at hand enough to show up when the going gets tough.

The Outsiders is different in that pretty much all of the teen characters we meet operate without adult supervision, but it doesn’t seem like an especially fun or freeing circumstance. If anything, it puts the boys constantly on-defense and in survival mode. It was refreshing to see what has to be a much more authentic portrayal of life without parental or family support. The Greasers didn’t have the luxury to go on the kind of parent-free adventures that we read about in other books, because there was no real safety net behind them!

I wanted to learn more about the girls who were adjacent to each of the gangs in the book.

We get this a little bit with Cherry and Marcia — two Soc girls who Ponyboy meets at the beginning of the book — but I would have really liked to learn more about the boy/girl dynamics in these gangs. Ponyboy’s general thoughts on the kind of girl that he’d like to be with made it very clear that relationships in his circles were dictated by class. Why didn’t we meet any Greaser girls in the story?

One specific thing that I thought was really interesting about Cherry and Marcia was the extent to which they seemed to understand that they were pawns in the weird power struggles that the boys around them were playing at. In the first few chapters of the book when the Greasers meet them at the movies, they seem genuinely happy to have a break from their gross Soc boyfriends… but they’re also very quick to leave when they sense that there’s going to be a fight if they stick around much longer. It’s crazy how much they internalized their seemingly passive roles in the gang wars!

The Outsiders is a really interesting examination of what motivates people to be violent.

“Soda fought for fun, Steve for hatred, Darry for pride and Two-Bit for conformity. Why do I fight? I thought, and couldn’t think of any real good reason. There isn’t any real good reason for fighting except self-defense.”

Yes, there’s a lot of violence in The Outsiders, but it’s certainly not glorified in any way. If anything, it’s closely examined and looked at from every angle. Ponyboy is so smart, and I loved the way he was able to step back and understand what was motivating each of his friends and brothers to engage in gang violence. He was also self-aware enough to realize that he couldn’t align with any of those motivations, and that he only wanted to get violent as a response to the sad realities of the dangerous world in which he lives.

I love how S.E. Hinton humanizes each of the Greasers… even the ones who seem particularly intimidating.

At the beginning of Episode 56, Esther and I talk quite a bit about the “boy/girl book” dichotomy. While both of us were big readers as kids and probably would have picked this up without it being assigned reading for school, we agreed that we probably felt intimidated by the covers we’d seen featuring a big group of boys or that we just couldn’t relate to the book’s synopsis. As a younger teen, in particular, I can’t imagine that I would have been particularly drawn to a book that seemed — at the surface — to be about a bunch of dudes in a gang.

S.E. Hinton does such a fantastic job of humanizing each and every one of the Greasers (and yes, even a few Socs) that within a few pages, I couldn’t remember why I’d ever thought that I couldn’t relate to the book. We learn so much about the boys that it’s almost impossible not to love them. Even Dally, who is easily the toughest of the Greasers, doesn’t seem especially scary in Hinton’s prose.

The book puts a fresh spin on “the grass is always greener on the other side.”

We’ve all read and watched countless books and movies that seek to communicate this message, but I think The Outsiders does it really, really well. “Socs were just guys after all. Things were rough all over, but it was better that way. That way you could tell the other guy was human too.”

Listen to the podcast episode about The Outsiders here!

I can’t wait to hear your “true story” thoughts about this book. Share them with me in the comments below.

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