Socs (short for ‘socials’ ) against greasers in 1965 Tulsa, Oklahoma. Urban teen gang culture in the years before gangs were organized crime. Struggles of class and status in the self-definition of adolescent America. S.E. Hinton was 15 when she started writing The Outsiders, the first of a series of books that captured the public imagination when first published and continue to be a staple of teen literature coming on 50 years later. Poor kids vs rich kids, street toughs vs socio-economic power, cars and girls and violence as the currency by which young men are measured and in which they trade – it’s a classic set-up, but a story which explores all of this with far more depth, far more complexity than its many imitators.
Hinton wrote the book as a reflection on the real-world gangs of her high school at the time, and her desire to explain and to defend the poor kids, the rough kids, the greasers. In doing so, though, she did so much more, capturing what is unique about American adolescence, what is common about the transition to adulthood, what class looks like in high school, what a conflicted and broken thing is masculinity. Takes a teenage girl, perhaps, to get what lurks hidden in teenage boys – to get what is beautiful and frightening and sad in them, and how they struggle to learn what manhood means in a world without mentors, without models, without anything to believe in except your place in the world and the friends who share that place.