Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Back to School: Greaser, Socs, and Prep School

I waited to read my last two titles for the Back to School Challenge until I went home for Christmas, because all of my old school books are there. I thought reading two books with an average reading level of about the 7th grade would take me two days max, but I didn't factor in that I am constantly busy when I'm at home. So, ever the procrastinator, I crammed in my two books my last day and a half at home and completed the Back to School Challenge with two titles I generally enjoyed the first time around: A Separate Peace and The Outsiders.

John Knowles' A Separate Peace seems to me like a somewhat more (though not much more) plot-driven Catcher in the Rye. It's supposed to be that classic coming-of-age story you read in high school. Gene is the smart kid attending Devon, a New Hampshire prep school at the beginning of World War II. He's best friends with Phineas, aka "Finny," who is pretty much the antithesis of Gene. Finny is a star athlete, outgoing, and a natural leader. He has a way of smooth-talking his way out of any situation as he casts a sort of spell over everyone he encounters. Though Gene is by no means disliked nor unathletic, he has a whole nest of insecurities when standing next to Finny...dare it be envy? During a summer session at Devon, all of Gene's pent-up emotions finally blow up during a male-bonding sort of game invented by Finny, causing an incident that leaves Finny disabled and Gene questioning his thoughts and actions.

I was hoping I would get more out of this book reading it now, almost ten years later, but I can't say I did. I completely understand the point of it all and the latent feelings that one may or may not choose to claim as real, but I can't say that I personally relate to the story. I can understand why it's a must-read in high school—it deals with a lot of issues that need to be explored, picked apart, and analyzed. Knowles does an excellent job of getting into a character's head, even when the character is not quite sure what's going on in there. The setting subtly lends to the chaos in the characters' heads; they are quickly approaching draft age, and their future is uncertain; the war presents a looming fear that Gene is (perhaps subconsciously) desperate to disrupt. Neither Finny nor Gene are willing to accept themselves and their role within their surroundings, but ultimately, Gene has to try to understand and (most importantly) make peace with his actions and their consequences. Inner- and outer- war and peace...that about sums it all up. It sure does have plenty of themes and symbols that English teachers seem to love.

The Outsiders, I read even longer ago, in the 7th grade. In reading it now, I find even less to analyze than I did when I was 12. Where A Separate Peace seemed to be written primarily for analysis, The Outsiders seemed to be written as a straight-up story, one you could absorb and retell without depriving the story of any of its subtleties. The writing isn't that great—no extraordinary use of literary techniques (probably because S.E. Hinton was a mere fifteen when she wrote this)—but it has great character development. Ponyboy Curtis is the story's narrator. He's a 14-year-old "Greaser," what he describes as one of the two types of people (the others being "Socs"). Greasers are hoodlums—they steal, smoke, and start fights. The Socs pretty much do the same thing, the only difference being that they're middle-class and have money. Therefore, Socs seem to get away with anything, while Greasers are constantly on the run and watching their backs. Ponyboy lives with his two older brothers, Darry and Sodapop, and their gang serves as a kind of extended family. He's intelligent, athletic, and, most notably, thoughtful. Ponyboy's head is always in the clouds. His loyalty to his gang is unyielding, but the fighting and hatred just start feeling kind of pointless to him. After all, Greaser or Soc, a guy's still just a person with his own thoughts and feelings. 

I wouldn't exactly suggest this one for English class analysis, but maybe that's the only way you can require a kid to read a book. And this one should definitely be necessary. While the details seem dated (it was written in 1967), the situations are not. It's thought-provoking to the audience as Ponyboy deals with a whole range of experiences and emotions. His constant internal battle between right and wrong gives him a sense of vulnerability as opposed to some of the other Greasers. He's a very real character, and we get to see all of his confusion, all of his ups and his downs, as he struggles with his environment. The Outsiders is a story I finish without needing to analyze, because the writing is so straightforward that I got everything out of it the first time around.


Salvatore said...

I must admit too that I don't feel that I enjoyed a second reading of 'A Separate Peace'. Not sure how to explain it. Maybe third time's the charm. And I've actually never read 'The Outsiders'. Plus I really don't like the four faces bleeding into each other on the jacket art. It makes it feel like a vapid movie poster.

Anonymous said...

The ONLY thing I remember from A Separate Peace is that separate is a very hard word to spell (I kept writing seperate on the final essay, and my teacher made some smart remark that scarred me for life).

Anonymous said...

I absolutely LOVED 'The Outsiders'. It's one of my favorite books so far. I haven't read 'A Separate Peace' though. I can't wait to read 'That Was Then, This Is Now' and 'Rumble Fish' which are also S. E. Hinton books.

Sam said...

'The Outsiders' is an amazing book about friendship and real-life situations that may seem bizzare, but happen quite often. The book kind of made me think how I would've acted if I was Ponyboy or any of the other characters. And what I figured out half way through the book was that Pony and I had a lot in common and by the time I finished it I knew that if I was ever in the situation that he was in I probably would've done the same things that he did. To sum it all up, I love 'The Outsiders' because I could relate to the way the characters acted and thought and I always thought it'd be cool to live in the 60's.