Revisiting a Classic -- The Outsiders

My niece turned 12 recently and since she loves to read, I thought I’d find her a hot new Young Adult novel. Unfortunately, the YA category ain’t what it used to be. Titles dominating bestseller lists, not to mention space in bookstores, are less about adventure and more about identity -- as in black, gay, trans, you get the picture. From these marginalized communities, protagonists navigate plotlines involving racism and assorted phobias, ultimately triumphing over some evil (often white) adversary.

A few years ago, The Hate U Give followed this script and sold millions, thereby setting the tone for a wave of black female heroines. Much like mainstream media, the idea is to bash readers over the head with false narratives – cops are bad, white people are bad, racism is everywhere. Curiously, I found no titles featuring straight white males (or females for that matter) battling America’s present-day climate of extreme anti-whiteness. Weird.

Yes folks, wokeness consumes everything in its path and YA literature is no exception. These days, there’s always a message, always some homage to progressive doctrine, and sometimes its more than a message. Sometimes it’s a full-blown lecture, entertainment be damned.

Anyway, I didn’t give up finding a YA book, I simply changed tactics. I went back in time. Way, way back! I got my niece a copy of the same coming-of-age novel I read when I was 12 -- The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. I even reread the damn thing. Why not? It’s a quick read, less than 50,000 words. And what a classic.

The Outsiders is gritty and coarse, even by today’s standards. A few content warnings -- there’s smoking, underage drinking, delinquency, fighting, a fatal stabbing, a suicide by cop.

Ponyboy Curtis, the 14-year-old narrator, faithfully describes enmity between Greasers and Socs in 1960s Oklahoma. Forget race -- The Outsiders is all about class warfare. Greasers are poor East Side kids -- hoodlums and white trash. They steal, get in fistfights, and drop out of school. Socs (short for Socials) are privileged West Side kids. They wear fancy clothes, drive fancy cars, and seem to enjoy beating up on greasers.

Ponyboy lives with older brothers Darry and Sodapop after their parents perish in a car wreck. Darry works two jobs to make ends meet and takes life seriously. Way too seriously for Ponyboy’s liking. By contrast, Sodapop is a happy-go-lucky charmer. The girls fawn over his movie-star good looks.

The Curtis boys team up in with an interesting cast of characters. Front and center is devil-may-care Dallas (Dally) Winston. He’s street-smart, tough, and mean -- and he’s got the rap sheet to prove it. Then there’s Johnny, small and skittish, “like a puppy who’d been kicked too many times.” The group takes him under their wing. They watch out for him. Wisecracking Two-Bit and Soda’s best pal Steve round out the gang. The characters are finely drawn. Authentic. And like family to each other. There is much love and much loyalty.

The story hits stride after the boys have a dalliance with a Soc girl (rich and beautiful Cherry Valance) at the drive-in, triggering a group of Socs to attack Johnny and Ponyboy. During the altercation, tragedy strikes and one of the Soc boys is killed. With Dally’s help, Ponyboy and Johnny go on the lam.

A show of hands -- who’s read the book? I'm guessing half of AT’s readership, minimum. Back in ’77, it left a mark on me. I remember it all so vividly. The parallels between Hinton’s world and my own were striking. Vancouver was likewise divided by East and West. The East End (where I grew up) was rough and tough, wrong side of the tracks. We even had greasers back in the day. The West Side had the rich kids, privileged and arrogant. We crossed paths with them on the ice and on the playing field, and there was never any love lost. Sure, the rodeo references in The Outsiders were odd to me, but I glossed right past them. I chalked them up to Oklahoma.

What really got me about The Outsiders was that it pulled back the curtain. It showed me life isn’t fair, but you deal with it anyway. Ponyboy learned to be tough when he had to, but he kept his soft, sensitive side. Stay gold, Ponyboy. The book’s social messages didn’t feel contrived or gratuitous or preachy. They were perfectly intertwined into the story.

The 1983 film adaptation boasted an all-star cast -- Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Matt Dillon, to name a few -- and it wasn’t half bad. But for my money it didn’t hold a candle to the book. And here’s something else. No way they make that movie today. And no way the book soars to bestsellerdom. How could it with not a single Person of Color? Not one. In fact, race never enters the picture, perhaps because everyone’s white, which of course is a cardinal sin in 2022.

No doubt, America’s changed a lot over the past 55 years. Heck, America’s changed a lot the past two years. So how about a remake? Could we salvage The Outsiders enough to pacify the Woke Mob? Major surgery would be needed. First, we’d need gay characters. Maybe a love story between Ponyboy and Johnny? Or maybe make Sodapop transgender? Next, the all-white cast would have to go. Easy fix -- make the greasers black. How about we start with Dally, Two-Bit, and Steve. Presto, problem solved. The Socs would remain rich, arrogant, and lily-white, but in our new version they’d also be racist as hell. Any black-on-white violence -- there’d definitely be some -- would obviously be their fault.

As for Ponyboy, we’d keep him white. Imagine the storylines. For example, could Ponyboy stay gold in our remake? Sorry, no. This is 2022. Ponyboy wouldn’t even start out gold. How could he when he’s scolded all day every day for the color of his skin – that wouldn’t make sense. No, this version of Ponyboy would be meek and frightened – and for good reason. Forget stay gold, the new tagline would be stay safe, Ponyboy.

Spoiler Alert, in the original Dally dies by police fire after robbing a grocery store. Would that still happen? Sure, but since he’s black, his death would set up a sequel packed with marches, mostly peaceful protests, and demands of reparations. How could they kill Dally? He was a good boy, just about to turn his life around. The story writes itself.

At any rate, I hope my niece enjoys the original.

K.M. Breakey is the author of Shout the Battle Cry of Freedom, and six other novels. He can be reached at ‘km at’

Image: Dell Books

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