An Homage to The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Viking Press, 1967
By REBECCA, May 14, 2012
It’s been 45 years since a teenaged S.E. Hinton (whose publishers encouraged her to go by her initials to avoid alienating her male readers) published The Outsiders, and Hinton has just announced that she will release an e-book version of the novel.
I first read The Outsiders when I was 11, in 1993. I know because “11 years” is written on the inside of the front cover in the careful, round cursive I remember using that year. I originally found it in the library, where I spent two afternoons a week while my mother did aerobics at the Y across the street. I trawled the stacks, running fingertips over the plastic-wrapped spines, then took that day’s findings to the lobby of the Y to meet my mother, reading only the first page of each selection to decide which I would read first.
I don’t remember how many pages of The Outsiders I read before I realized that I needed to buy my own copy so that I could read it over and over without the attentive librarian or my parents commenting on how I was checking out the same book multiple times. I do remember scooting into the bookstore next to the grocery store when I next went grocery shopping with my mother, though, and slipping the slim paperback into my pocket before she could see. I was secretive, and stingy with the things that mattered, afraid that sharing would diffuse them. And The Outsiders definitely mattered.
It wasn’t the story, or even the writing style that so captivated me. It was a quality that Hinton’s characters had. Something that I hadn’t experienced much yet—couldn’t have experienced much yet, as a middle class, white kid with a wonderful family, living in a liberal college town—but that screamed at me from the pages.
I wouldn’t have known what to call it then, but it is a very particular kind of honor. An honor that comes from knowing that you will be misjudged but doing what you feel you must do anyway; knowing that your actions alone are not enough to change the world but acting nonetheless; loving whom and what you love despite the threats and harm that result because of that love.
I wanted to be like them—to fight for the things and people that I loved. But, although I might not have known to call it honor, or been exactly sure of how to describe the gender, race, and class politics that inflect it, I had a sneaking suspicion that something more than my socioeconomic background or my gender stood in the way of my ever being like Dally or Ponyboy. Cherry Valance says it best: “‘It’s not just money [that separates Socs and greasers]. Part of it is, but not all. You greasers have a different set of values. You’re more emotional. We’re sophisticated—cool to the point of not feeling anything’” (35). “‘That’s why we’re separated,’” Pony responds, “‘it’s feeling—you don’t feel anything and we feel too violently’” (36).
If I didn’t even want anyone to know how deeply a novel had affected me, could I ever express the depth of my feelings the way Ponyboy does the first night he meets Cherry?: “‘It ain’t fair!’ I cried passionately. ‘It ain’t fair that we have all the rough breaks!’” (40). I sensed there was a correlation, somehow, between having it rough and being able to express strong emotions. Or was it that without a family that was invested in your happiness it simply became much easier to admit to unhappiness?
So maybe I wasn’t a greaser in that way. But maybe, I thought, the honor I saw in Hinton’s greaser characters wasn’t tied up only in such transparent personal emotionality. Maybe writing could be honorable, too. Maybe it could save people in a different way than Johnny saves the kids from the burning church, or Darry saves Pony and Soda from being put in a boy’s home. And if that was the case, maybe I could express things through my writing that I could never say out loud without feeling terribly awkward and exposed.
In 1993, the idea that I, a kid living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, could ever hope to communicate with the person who wrote my favorite book was totally unthinkable. Sure, I knew people wrote fan letters, but I was never that person. After all, what could I possibly write that would express to S.E. Hinton what her book meant to me? And how could I tell something so personal to a total stranger, even if I thought she might understand? I know now, of course, that writers thrive on just this type of letter, but that kind of hyper-personal fannishness embarrassed me.
When Tessa and I started this blog, one thing that was totally new to me was Twitter. I got the hang of it, slowly, but what repeatedly blew my mind about this chatty new world was the proximity of authors to readers. On a nervous whim, like picking up a phone to call a crush and hesitating over that last digit, I searched to see if Hinton was on Twitter. When I saw that she was, I wasn’t sure what to do. I mean, I wanted to be her as a kid—how could I reconcile that kind of deep respect with 140 characters of potential banality?
More to the point, what do I do in this new, close world where expressing what we “like” is just how many of us communicate, to say nothing of sharing what we love? Where, in all this closeness, do I put the pieces of myself that have slouched to the movies with Pony and Johnny and daydreamed through the first feature? The pieces that have tensed in fury on Dally’s behalf and thrown imaginary punches at assholes, bullies, bigots, and anyone who looked at me wrong when I walked down the street? The pieces that always wanted two older brothers—or maybe wished that I could be one? The pieces that so badly wanted a gang of my own that would always have my back?
When I look at my copy of The Outsiders that I first read when I was 11, dog-eared, the edges rounded by re-reading, the idea of experiencing the greasers’ story electronically seems foreign—a little . . . Soc-y, maybe? But maybe not. Maybe the ability to get The Outsiders at the touch of a button, without sneaking into a bookstore or hiding the number of times you’ve checked it out from the local library is the best thing that could happen. In any case, as Ponyboy might remind me, I guess you can read The Outsiders pretty good from an e-reader, too.