‘This is one of those books when you keep wanting to shout, “No! Don’t!” at the characters.’
The protagonist of The Outsiders, first published in 1967, is 14-year-old Ponyboy Curtis, who lives with his two older brothers, both of whom have put aside their own ambitions to keep the family together after their parents died in a car crash. The oldest, Darry, is the leader of a local gang known as the ‘greasers’. Their rivals are a gang of richer kids called the ‘socs’ (it’s short for ‘socials’, so you know how to say it). There’s a hopeless inevitability about all the interactions between the members of the two gangs: sometimes one or the other is looking for trouble and make sure to find it, sometimes offence is given accidentally, but not forgiven, sometimes an encounter escalates into violence when someone steps in to defend another. Darry and Ponyboy’s other brother, Sodapop, desperately want him to stay out of the violence, to get good grades and step out of their life. But Ponyboy is immersed in the community. He can dream of another life, but he must stand by his friends.
The Outsiders is an intense and moving read, one of those books when you keep wanting to shout, “No! Don’t!” at the characters, and yet at every turn you understand the reasons for their actions. For such a short read, there’s incredibly depth to it, both in the characterisation and in the complex relationships between the characters. While many YA novels focus on the protagonist’s journey of self-discovery, here, Ponyboy is discovering his own world and in particular discovering the complex motives and desires that drive people around him. And although so much of the book seems to underline the hopelessness of trying to escape from the situation, it ends with a glimmer of hope.
Is it dated? Probably in terms of the action itself. I imagine with the prevalence of firearms in the US these days, rival gangs wouldn’t meet to fight with knives alone. But in terms of groups of people being antagonistic to each other over the differences between them, nothing could be more relevant.
More to Read!
Written 15 years earlier, The Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger is a prime example of a YA book where the protagonist’s journey is internal rather than external.
I’ve just finished reading The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas which is a gripping and emotional story which focuses on the repercussions of the killing of an unarmed black teen by a police officer in today’s US. As I read about gang affiliations and the support of the community even in communities that seem broken to the outside world, little bells kept going off in my head, reminding me of The Outsiders.