Friday, May 5, 2017

Literary Ruralism (Part XI): The Outsiders

This year marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, a coming-of-age novel set in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where two gangs, the Greasers (poor kids) and Socs (rich kids) have an ongoing rivalry.  The book was adapted for the big screen by Francis Ford Coppola in 1983, starring a number of heart throbs of the time, including Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Leif Garrett, Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon, and C. Thomas Howell as Pony Boy.

The anniversary publicity prompted me to re-read the book--a staple of my own literary upbringing--with my own 'tween son.  In doing so, I was struck by a passage idealizing the rural.  Here, the book's central character, Ponyboy, is conversing with another "Greaser," Johnny about the nature of their lives when Pony boy lapses into a daydream about what his and his brothers' lives (Sodapop the middle son, Darry the eldest) would be like had their parents not perished prematurely:
"It seems like there’s gotta be someplace without greasers or Socs, with just people. Plain ordinary people.”

“Out of the big towns,” I said, lying back down. “In the country…”

In the country… I loved the country. I wanted to be out of towns and away from excitement. I only wanted to lie on my back under a tree and read a book or draw a picture, and not worry about being jumped or carrying a blade or ending up married to some scatterbrained broad with no sense. The country would be like that, I thought dreamily. I would have yeller cur dog, like I used to, and Sodapop could get Mickey Mouse back and ride in all the rodeos he wanted to, and Darry would lose that cold, hard look and be like he used to be, eight months ago, before Mom and Dad were killed. 
Since I was dreaming I brought Mom and Dad back to life… Mom could bake some more chocolate cakes and Dad would drive the pickup out early to feed the cattle. He would slap Darry on the back and tell him he was getting to be a man, a regular chip off the block, and they would be as close as they use to be. Maybe Johnny could come and live with us, and the gang could come out on weekends, and maybe Dallas would see that there was some good in the world after all, and Mom would talk to him and make him grin in spite of himself. “You’ve got quite a mom,” Dally use to say. “She knows the score.” She could talk to Dallas and kept him from getting into a lot of trouble. My mother was golden and beautiful …
It is interesting how this passage associates rurality and farm life with all things wholesome and good--and even a beautiful, golden mother.  But the book also includes a subsequent scene where Ponyboy basically acknowledges the downsides to country living, acknowledges that he was idealizing it.

Part of The Outsiders takes place outside Tulsa, in rural Windrixville, near Jay Mountain--both apparently fictitious place names.  Pony Boy and Johnny take refuge there in an abandoned church while evading law enforcement.  Some of the Windrixville residents they meet also arguably represent rural difference.   One Windrixville man focuses on the courage and goodness of  Pony Boy and Johnny after they risk their lives to rescue children from the burning church; he doesn't see the boys first as Greasers; he sees them first as heroes.  This surprises Pony Boy, who is accustomed to having adults pre-judge him based on class, generally seeing little worth in him as a consequence.

Very interesting to see this treatment of class from half a century ago, and to ponder how the ways in which we talk about class has changed--but also to know that class is still such an important organizing feature of our society, whether rural or urban.

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