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Ponyboy Curtis Still Lives

By KJ Mullins     Sep 29, 2007 in Entertainment
Forty years ago a teenager named S.E. Hinton wrote a book while still in high school. That book is still as popular as it was then. The 40th anniversary edition of "The Outsiders" has just been published.
The woman who earned a D in her creative writing class crafted part of the popular teen novel sitting at the library of Will Rogers High School in Tulsa. Students still steal her books from the school library.
"I can't keep them on the shelves," librarian Carrie Fleharty says with a laugh. "The kids keep taking them out and `forgetting' to bring them back."
The Tulsa Hinton wrote about has changed over the years but the gang problem is still visible. The weapons though have grown up from the switchblades that feature in the novel.
"The Outsiders" is the raw, but hopeful story of rival gangs that features narrator Ponyboy Curtis, the bookish greaser who can quote Robert Frost; macho Dallas Winston, blue eyes "blazing ice, cold with a hatred of the whole world"; and little Johnny Cade, a "dark puppy that has been kicked too many times."
"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," Hinton wrote in the novel. "Hundreds of boys who maybe watched sunsets and looked at stars and ached for something better."
S.E. Hinton wrote about her real life. The gang rivalry was so bad that the Socs and the greasers had to enter their high school from different doors. She fit in neither world but was more at home with the greasers that lived in the neighbourhood she grew up in.
She started writing the novel at the age of fifteen. At that time she didn't know how to type but learned quickly because her handwriting was so bad even she couldn't read it. The story of Ponyboy Curtis, his brothers and their circle of friends took her a year and a half to finish. She had no plans of sharing her work with the masses. A friend's mother read her manuscript and contacted an agent in New York. Viking signed the now 17 year old author and the rest is history.
"The Outsiders" was published in 1967, but greeted more as a curiosity than a breakthrough. "Can sincerity overcome cliches?" began a brief New York Times review by Thomas Fleming. "In this book by a now 17-year-old author, it almost does the trick."
"It was overemotional, over the top, melodramatic," Hinton acknowledges. "But its vices were its virtues, because kids feel that way."
Her first royalty payment was a ten dollar check. Those payments have increased over the years. High school students often explore the novel as part of their English literature classes.
She took three years to finish her next novel, "That Was Then, This is Now". There have been a few others that have escaped her typewriter.
According to Viking her first novel has sold more than 13 million copies. It averages 500,000 copies a year forty years since it started sitting on book store shelves.
The novel was made into a movie in 1983 featuring Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Ralph Macchio and in a minor role, Tom Cruise. Hinton was often on the set.
"I was a mother to all of them, and I wouldn't take any guff from any of them. If one of them acted up, I'd crack the whip and say, `I'm going to cut your lines,'" recalls Hinton, who worked with Coppola on the script and was on the set daily while filming took place in Tulsa. "They were these goofy teenage boys, no adult guidance, no nothing. They wore me out."
The characters are still relevant. The emotions still teach teens. I read all of her novels as a teen twenty some years ago, traveling the black marks on the page back to the dusty Tulsa streets that Ponyboy and Johnny walked down, to the sunlight filtering over the wooden boards of an abandoned church.
I'm glad that teens still are enjoying the novel.
More about Hinton, Outsiders, Tulsa
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