I am not one of those who reads and rereads a book umpteen number of times. It was different when I was young – eight to be precise. I had a limited number of books, some of them unabridged classics, which I didn’t understand at all, but there were those I understood too. The song of Hiawatha was one such. It was adapted for children and I read it many times over, moved to tears every time. The Grimm’s fairy tales was also re-read because I had no choice, not because it was gripping.
Since then I have read hundreds of books but never had the urge to re-read any of them except the odd Bill Bryson travelogue or one of Marilyn French’s novels and… The Outsiders. I have lost count of the number of times I have read the last one, which is saying something given my record. And psst…I cry at the same places every single time!
I first read it when I got it from the B.C.Roy Children’s library in Delhi, and kept renewing it because it was not available in bookstores in those days. The older one and I kept reading it alternately and sometimes simultaneously – waiting for one to put it down before the other picked it up! Till the younger one, then just 8-years-old, suggested that we got it photocopied so that we could return it back to the library and allow other kids to borrow it too!! He did all the work, got it photocopied, cut the pages and got it spiral bound. The copy is still around somewhere. Years later when the older one went abroad, he got me a brand new print of the book.
I don’t even want to start describing this book since I am sure to run out of adjectives extolling it before I finish the first para. It is a story of two sets of boys on the opposite sides of the social divide – the Greasers and the Socs (short for socials) and written by a young adult herself. The author S.E.Hinton was just 15 when she began writing it and 17 when it was published. Susan Eloise Hinton became S.E.Hinton to hide the fact of her being a girl so that boys would also read her book.
To call it a classic would be an understatement. Written by a teenager it breaks all codes for books for young people. It is stark, portrays ugly truths about social inequality and has several violent scenes both direct and implied including a murder. There is death, not one but three of them and violent ones at that. It had been a controversial novel for this very reason when it first came out, but that has not prevented it from becoming an all-time hit with young people.
And yet there is tenderness in the narration — in the relationship between the three brothers Darrel, Sodapop and Ponyboy Curtis. The last is the youngest of the trio and the narrator of the story. The gang comprising of the three Curtis brothers, Two-Bit Mathews, (so called because of his habit of butting in with his humorous two-bit’s worth) Dally Winston, Johnny Cade and Steve Randel is close, and acts as a surrogate family to Johnny Cade, the timid and shy abused son of uncaring parents.
Every character is etched in my memory, the description, the mannerisms and the dialogues. The images formed in my mind were given forms after I saw the movie.
The social conditions that separated the lower middle class Greasers and the well-to-do socs, forms the plot of the story. It has the mandatory friendships, fights – both organised ‘rumbles’ and violent ones – girls, buddies, the lot. But it is not just teen fiction talking about friendship and fights, but is a social commentary of the 60s America.
There is sensitivity in the description of the characters, insight in the narration of events, wisdom in the observations. Along the way Hinton also deals with the innermost feelings of the two groups and how things are ‘rough all over,’ stating that the fact of having less or more money does not change this vital fact. She also talks about parental abuse, neglect and what those can do to young people while talking about the good effects that love can achieve. As she has said, she wrote about what she saw happening around her, about those whom she interacted with in school. And amazingly for a teenager, she has managed to capture everything so succinctly.
For instance her description of the difference between ‘tuff’ buddies hanging out in ‘gangs’ like that of Ponyboy and Co., and ‘hoods’ with their foot in crime as the Shepard brothers and Buck Merril. She blows the myth that the have-nots are not good students or sportsmen through the characters of Ponyboy and Darrel and also the fact that the socs are not all law-abiding model citizens.
The next best thing to reading this book is watching the movie. Unlike some books which become their watered down versions when made into a film, the movie The Outsiders has not only remained true to the book but at times feels even better. Little wonder – it was directed by Francis Ford Coppola. In fact I loved the movie so much so that I have watched it every single time it has been telecast in one or the other of the channels. Talk of ‘The Outsiders’ addiction!
The cast includes all the big stars of today who were teenagers or in their early 20s in the early 80s when the movie was released – Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, Thomas Howell, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez and Diane Lane among others.
I could quote every word and sentence from the book as being memorable, but since that would be copyright infringement, I restrict myself to just a few. Believe me, picking them out was not easy.
Randy to Ponyboy about his friend Bob trying to make his parents look at him:
They (his parents) gave in to him all the time…he wanted someone to tell him ‘No’. To have someone to lay down the law, to set the limits, give him something solid to stand on…If his old man had belted him – just once, he might still be alive.
Ponyboy to Cherry on the harsh realities of the social divide:
Do you think your spying for us makes up for the fact that you are sitting there in a Corvette, while my brother drops out of school to get a job?
An anguished Cherry to Ponyboy about her boyfriend Bob’s aggression:
Why do people sell liquor to boys? Why? I know there is a law against it, but kids get it anyway…
And my favourite one where Johnny tells Ponyboy about the need to retain one’s innocence:
Stay gold, Ponyboy….
And no, these are not the dialogues that make me bawl. Go find your own.
If you have not already read it, get a copy right away. As for me, I am going to begin reading the book for the ummm…… nth time.
And the day I am able to pen such a classic, I would consider myself a writer.