“I could picture hundreds and hundreds of boys living on the wrong sides of cities, boys with black eyes who jumped at their own shadows. Hundreds of boys who maybe watched sunsets and looked at stars and ached for something better. I could see boys going down under street lights because they were mean and tough and hated the world, and it was too late to tell them that there was still good in it, and they wouldn’t believe you if you did. It was too vast a problem to be just a personal thing. There should be some help, someone should tell them before it was too late. Someone should tell their side of the story, and maybe people would understand then and wouldn’t be so quick to judge a boy by the amount of hair oil he wore. It was important to me.”
Ponyboy lives with his two brothers, the strong and serious Darryl who had to grow up too fast to support his family, and Soda, the cheerful golden boy who dropped out of school to work at a gas station. Though their blood family is small, their chosen family is much bigger: quiet Johnny, funny Two-Bit, and hardened, sinister Dallas. They are greasers, boys from the wrong sides of the tracks, who are in a dangerous quiet war with the "Soc's," the middle class and rich kids in town. And its not just name calling; the greasers live in a state of constant fear that they will be jumped and pulverized, maybe even killed. One of these incidents turns into a nightmare for Ponyboy and Johnny, and they end up on the run. But soon they must stop and make a choice between what is right and what is easy (thank you, Dumbledore).
I must admit, I resisted this book. I knew it was about greasers and gangs, and my only point of reference was Grease or West Side Story. I figured it was a grittier, more realistic machofest, boys trying fighting over arbitrary turf borders and participating in pissing contests. I expected to not relate to any of the characters, and I expected them to die violently. While I was correct about the latter assumption, boy was I wrong about the other bits.
Within the first few pages, as Ponyboy described the other boys in the greasers, I felt like I knew them. I expected them to all be versions of Dally, but right off the bat, and in spite of myself, I liked them.The love the three brothers had for each other, Darry’s struggles, Soda’s hidden pain, Ponyboy’s grief, Dallas’ self-destructive love, Two-Bit’s humor, and Johnny’s perseverance and honor resonated with me. Ponyboy was just a regular kid. None of the boys had chosen that life. You could imagine how, if circumstances were different, each of these boys would thrive.
It made me think of the movie Dazed and Confused. I remember thinking “Why are the Socs just driving around?” Then it hit me that they really had nothing else to do. No internet, no movies at home, often no family but the one they chose. No wonder everyone got into so much trouble. They had to invent their own culture to give their lives meaning.
Hinton wanted us to see both the “hoods” and the Socs as real people, rather than stereotypes. She wanted to show the life she and her friends and family lived. Through the characters of Cheryl and Randy, we saw how the divide could be crossed. The plot seemed a little contrived at times, i.e. convenient church picnics, but it forced the characters to change and grow.
The ending touched me the most: as Ponyboy is stumbling through his fog of grief, he reads Johnny’s letter and takes on a mission (see quote above). That paragraph is enough to change the world. I could see it resonating with hundreds of students today, especially when they realize S.E. Hinton wrote this book when she was 16. The past speaks to the present about something they understand deeply, and calls on them to make a change.