Review: That Was Then, This Is Now

That Was Then, This Is Now That Was Then, This Is Now by S.E. Hinton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a novel that takes place in the same world as Hinton's most famous novel, The Outsiders, it is also a compelling counterpart to that novel in big and small ways. The protagonist, Bryon like Ponyboy, is almost an orphan with his mother barely making ends meet and hospitalized throughout the novel, while his best-friend and quasi-brother, Mark. Mark's parents killed each other (or Mark had some role--we're never quite clear on that) and have lived with Bryon for years. However, it's a darker and bleaker coming-of-age story than what happens in The Outsiders. Bryon and Mark are slowly drifting apart, in part because while they are often witness to the same experiences (often even together), their understanding of what has occurs destabilized Bryon's understanding of the world while it reinforces Mark's amoral view. As Bryon participates in violence as well as becomes victim to it, he begins to see the futility of it and how much his actions contribute to the cycles of pain and alienation. But for Mark, it's largely about reacting and getting back at others. The slow unraveling of this deep and intimate relationship is paralleled as well with Bryon's own development to recognize and become capable of expressing his feelings for his romantic interest, Cathy. But even here, Cathy is ultimately part of the journey in Bryon's development, not an end unto itself.

The power of this novel is that the end doesn't leave the reader feeling ok, but leaves them wondering about Bryon's future. It's not a resolution but rather a recognition that Bryon is rudderless when before he at least had a direction. As a novel for youth, the message is powerful because it reaffirms the challenges of becoming an adult. As a counter to The Outsiders, I think it's fantastic. While Ponyboy Curtis is left to remember to "stay golden" and hold onto a part of him that is a core of his identity, Bryon is left more directionless because his core wasn't golden. Additionally, while The Outsiders is marked by big events (the near-drowning/murder, the fire, the battle, the shootout), this novel is more subtle and loose. There are events but they are not life-and-death events but rather the dumb stuff of youth (non-lethal fights--most of the time, doing drugs, getting through every-day life). What's interesting here is that Ponyboy does appear in this novel as a more stable level-headed character (it seems to take place after The Outsiders) and becomes in many ways, the example that Bryon is moving toward; yet has no understanding of how Ponyboy became who he is and what it took to get there. In the end, if The Outsiders has proved appealing, then this novel too will be equally appreciated.

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