In This Teen Book Club, “The Outsiders” Leads to Talk of Boys and ICE
It’s the third Wednesday of the month, and that means it’s time for book club. Seven students gather in a small-town Oregon church to discuss The Outsiders.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of S.E. Hinton’s classic, and it only feels as though everyone has read the romantic, scruffy-versus-stuffy tale of rough boys in dungarees and their mid-1960s battles — first social, then physical — against privileged town elites. The Greasers battle the Socials. In 1983, Francis Ford Coppola adapted the novel into what was to become a cult film starring Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze and Diane Lane.
The book club’s membership, however, is anything but vintage.
At four fold-up tables, critical thoughts on Hinton’s snooty Socs and low-class Greasers are batted about by a group of high school students; roughly half of the 16 book club members are Latino and half are whites. The book club allows them to share a common starting point for discussing their different lives.
Half the teens are terrified that the latest crackdown by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) launched since President Trump took office will tear their families apart. The other half are contending with the potential loss of comrades-in-libros, while learning an indelible lesson about injustice.
“I read The Outsiders in, like, seventh grade,” announces M—, a junior at the local high school who was born in Columbia. (Full names and the name of the town are being withheld to protect the kids and their families from scrutiny by immigration authorities.) “But I read it again to refresh my memory. And as I read it I noticed, ‘Wow, the writing isn’t really all that good.’ [Hinton] wrote it when she was in high school, right? Understandable.”
A — , a club member from Mexico, objects, indirectly. She demonstrates the classic nature of Hinton’s prose by quoting Outsiders passage after Outsiders passage. From here comes banter. Today, only the girls in the club have shown up, and they do indeed move on from critique of prose and character development. Like, who among the girls in the room — a plurality of whom identify as LGBT — has a crush on Darry, played by Patrick Swayze in the film version? (That would be 16-year-old A — , who “has a thing” for bad boys.)
A club member describes Hinton’s anti-hero Greasers as “more like criminals.”
“They don’t necessarily have to be criminals,” interjects 14-year-old B — . Since it’s another young Latina who described the Greasers this way, there’s a level of nuance to B — taking offense. Their community knows the lash of lazy labels. These near-adults, aware of how tenuous their lives have become, are mindful of how they discuss themselves. With the government trying to tear our lives apart, we don’t need to take the task upon ourselves.
It’s not lost on a few snickering club members in the one-time church that a key scene in The Outsiders features a church that’s on fire.
For young nerds, books are prime tools of survival. To lay eyes on these Oregon kids exploring their intellectual lives is something else: at minimum, a look at how young America might grapple with the time’s tumult.
This book club offers a microcosmic perspective on larger issues. While this small town’s after-school students were sinking their teeth into S.E. Hinton, the first DREAMer was deported from California. And even the white kids at the table had heard about the father ICE arrested and deported while dropping his daughter off at school near downtown Los Angeles.
Some here worry more deeply than others, but everyone at the table feels threatened. In Oregon, word gets around on a need-to-know basis once you leave the big city. Among the laptop-dependent denizens of Portland’s coffeehouses, there’s no crushing need to know that bumper crops are going bad in towns they’ve never heard of, simply because farm workers aren’t showing up for their gigs just as strawberry season hits its stride. No, that guy with the vape pen won’t care for four months, until what’s gone rotten on the vine gets reflected at the marketplace.
Have the missing workers without papers already fled the federal purge, or are these undocumented citizens just hiding at home?
“We will know the impact more fully once the core of the agricultural season is over, in late September,” says Daniel López-Cevallos, associate director of research at the Center for Latino/a Studies and Engagement at Oregon State University. Even the 50 percent of this book club whose parents are out in the fields or working in their ancillary industries, can’t know the field projections; they’ve only personal experience to go on.
But even the white book club kids can tell you that 2017 feels more like an escalation than like being blind-sided.
Long before Donald Trump railed against undocumented immigrants — or “bad hombres” in his vernacular — those guilty of the misdemeanor of entering the country without government authorization, or the non-crime of being that person’s child, have felt unwanted. For Trump and others who tell these families to leave the United States, it will never be enough that an estimated 11 million undocumented citizens pay into a Social Security system that they currently cannot collect from; that the labor of so many who pick our strawberries and microgreens or pack the produce in warehouses keep our food prices low.
Though many in this community refer to former President Obama as “The Deporter in Chief” for his administration’s reputation for ousting a record number of undocumented immigrants from the U.S., the pace of expulsions has only increased in the early days of the Trump administration — more than 1,000 ICE “removal” arrests in the Oregon, Washington and Alaska jurisdiction between the presidential inauguration and April 29. But now the threat comes wrapped in hateful rhetoric and symbolic political manipulation: Trump’s Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, for instance, just christened the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) phone hotline, even though immigrants commit crimes at a far lower rate than the general population. A study by the non-partisan National Bureau of Economic Research found that immigrants have far lower incarceration rates “on the order of one-fifth the rate of natives.” Immigrant Oregonians from Mexico increasingly mention Canada as an appealing alternative destination to returning to their homeland should push, so to speak, come to shove.
On narrow steps on the side of the church, M — , small, chatty, and confident in this context, will go on about The Outsiders, but she’ll also analyze When Morning Comes, youth fiction about a South African activist, circa 1976. When M — ’s group took on that one, the tension and range of their talk was remarkable for this allegedly post-literary epoch. Perhaps the ripeness of their exchanges relates to how easy the youths found it to overlay contemporary events. From When Morning Comes, M — has found herself transfixed by the word Amandla.
“In 2017, even though we’ve progressed so much, we’re in a time where we feel like this progress might be threatened,” says M — , whose mother has lost employment because she’s undocumented. “I saw in the (January) Women’s March that we all joined together and showed that we had Amandla, strength, to fight for our civil rights.”
Even if ICE doesn’t ratchet up raids, the possibility is already having an impact akin to the way the Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban — which is separating brown families thousands of miles from Mexico — preceded a spike in Islamophobic violence. In parts of rural Oregon, trust is under siege.
Take the day that L— , the librarian who oversees the book club and requested that we not publish her full name, says she phoned a nearby Catholic church to see if it might serve as sanctuary from the feds. No can do, the librarian says she was told by the priest. Rather, he was working on a thing — with ICE — about a guy in the church community he heard had hit his wife.
When contacted for this story, the director of religious studies for the church said that while its leadership has not yet been able to play a role in the deportation of any undocumented workers, “it would like to get involved” with ICE. Regardless of the different versions — the librarian’s and the church director’s — it’s undeniable that the cost of the threat of deportation is being spread across this rural Oregon town. Sanctuary as a concept foots the bill.
Another day, another discussion at the table. This time on its far end.
“People around here are in fear of getting deported, because half of our community members are immigrants,” said B — , 14, after a different book discussion. B — comes across as the same age as two white girls who have some college under their belts. “It’s the truth. I don’t know how to explain it.”
Away from the Outsiders back-and-forth, B — will give as well as she gets with the older club members: tall and angular AL — , whose tastes run to Andrew Smith and Michael Chabon, and MK — , a big Neil Gaiman fan. Sandy-haired — with a dusting of pink — MK — recalls an old argument over David Almond’s Tightrope Walkers, a beef still unresolved. MK — for, AL — against.
B — wasn’t into Tightrope Walkers, either. She let it be known that she considers Dominic the narrator a non-character. “Too passive.” Then Almond’s writing took more of a rough going-over. Voice levels around this corner of the book club table rise and fall. Hand gestures grow less mild as the readers’ stakes rise. There’s laughter though. Usually.
That is, until the mood in the real world became a topic.
“I feel like,” MK — offers, “we feel like we’re far away: We’re in the West, we’re in a small town. In Oregon. We kinda feel… separate?”
“We’re isolated,” said B — .
“Yeah, we’re isolated and all of that happens over there and we’re like: ‘No, we’re okay. Nothing’s going to happen here…’”
B — starts to say something —
“…which may or may not be… true,” MK — says.
B — takes a breath and gathers herself.
“On a personal level, the politics are really scary. You guys might feel isolated in a way…Or people might feel isolated in a way. And that we’re fine… we’re a community, where nothing can get you as fast as it might somewhere else.
“But, things like education and schooling? It’s weird, ’cause… things you have to work twice as hard for now…” Her voice trails away to an inaudible place. B — ’s last words before breaking down are ‘my future.”
She had long assumed her DREAMer status — which protects undocumented people brought to the U.S. as children — would keep her safe.
The fear she works to keep in check overwhelms B — , and she breaks down. The two college kids take the high school girl into their arms, together.
“As we get to know each other, even as we have disagreements over religion and politics, we get to know each other through books we like, and stuff,” MK — explains once B — has wiped away her tears. Then it’s back to paragraphs and sentences, the fantastic ones and the books that “suck.” The younger one’s sobs become memory, indelible but eclipsed by shared criticism’s alchemy.
Missing from the table is a teen whose mother wants to “pray the gay away.” A recurring topic is the hope for an end to her recent ban from the book club.
“We have kids who are in the teen book club who are from very conservative backgrounds,” the librarian, L — , says. “We have kids who are from liberal backgrounds. They all get together and mix it up, and pretty soon they are understanding each other’s perspectives and changing each other.”
“I think, in a city, you can find your little pod,” L — continues. “Your little group that’s similar to yourself and maybe not be required to rub shoulders with people who are different than you.”
L— would know. Her daughter AL — was attending an East Coast university before the cost got the better of them. AL — never surrendered her membership, and when she returned to study engineering at a local state university, the book club she had grown up in seemed a logical extension of her worldly education.
“You can talk about life through those books,” says AL — , 20, a member of the club since she was 15. “You feel closer to that person.”
In a threatening new world, the tight-knit teenagers in book club have surmised that direct political action is a reasonable step to now take. Last March, L — and the students sent out invitations for a gathering of local people concerned with improving the dignity of LGBT+ residents, the homeless, the handicapped, all people of color and the elderly.
About 45 people — an even distribution of residents who were white and those who were not — gathered in the church’s main room to inaugurate this dignity group with frank talk about discrimination and, more specifically, fears of deportation. L — brought in Cara Shufelt, cofounder of the Rural Organizing Project, to speak to the nascent grassroots activists. No Outsiders or Tightrope Walkers on the evening’s agenda, but a third of the room were students from the centerless book club table.
At the back of the room were enough boxes of pizza to feed the local football team. In the front, Shufelt, dispensed flyers explaining how to handle encounters with ICE. The kids from the book club listened avidly, a political bloc activated by circumstance.
The adults in the room — brown and white, male and female — appeared inspired by the large book club presence. Rural Organizing Project guided discussion of the “Know Your Rights” sheets,
M — , the junior who applied Amandla to the Women’s March, met whites’ testifying to their struggles with civil discourse in workplace, with her own tale of defending the minimum wage to a classmate who disparagingly opposed it.
“The book club brought incredible wisdom around what’s needed,” Shufelt says. Hardly anything relates more universally than a tense classroom exchange.
Can the wisdom of babes be enough in times of widespread uncertainty? Larger municipalities like Portland declare themselves sanctuary cities, while some counties are granting operating space to ICE, according to López-Cevallos of Oregon State University. The power of the printed word has an intimidating rival in the deep-seated resentments that made the 78 percent white state resoundingly vote down — in 2014 — a ballot measure providing drivers licenses to undocumented people, despite powerful evidence that giving them such privileges would improve the safety of all Oregonians.
It’s not just undocumented workers with the need to drive who are feeling hemmed in by the vagaries of white racism. M — has begun considering options that AL — , the librarian’s daughter, might find difficult to even conceive of.
“Fortunately, I was able to apply for DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals], which keeps me safe from deportation,” M — said after the meeting. “But not my parents. My mom has been fired from a couple of jobs because, when they did background checks, they found she wasn’t documented. It gives a lot of tension and nervousness. We’ve discussed asking family in Canada about emigrating [there] instead.”
Back at the interconnected folding tables, one month after the dignity meeting, stacks of McNuggets boxes are piling up. S —, the girl whose mother kept her away from the book club because she thought it was influencing her sexual preference, is back at the table. Her father, who lives in a small town up the highway, brought her on this Saturday. S — is a powerhouse, delivering blistering takes on When Morning Comes. Not a fan, to put it mildly.
Ruthless criticism aside, these gatherings radiate empathy. And the unavoidable takeaway is that every single community in the nation could use them as avenues toward more broad and deep understanding. This afternoon’s book club table talk is richer for S — ’s presence.
The veggie platter on the pantry counter remains mostly untouched. And B— , the 14-year-old who wavered about defending the greasers in The Outsiders, seems more self-possessed. There’s unspoken hurt in her defense of Ponyboy and Sodapop, a couple of the book’s underclass antiheroes.
“They were just more rough,” B — declares, “more looked-down upon.”
“Yeah,” adds M — . “They were considered the scum of the earth.”
Fifty years later? The Outsiders are the ones we love.
The afternoon sun is waning, and the book club members still have to vote on which Young Adult title they’ll read together next month. In this one way, even if larger political forces intervene, they’ll all be on the same page. But they hold on to this moment, pushing the vote off a bit longer, and finish analyzing Hinton. If awareness of the parallels between their church and the church the boys become holed up in has spread beyond the snickering few, those book club members are keeping it as subtext.
“I love how Ponyboy’s really dreamy, going off about sunsets, memorizing poems,” says A — , the brown girl crushing on Darry. “There’s a quote where he says” — she skims the book in search of the passage — “I don’t know where it is… it’s by Robert Frost…”
And then, from memory, A — recalls it: “Nature’s first green is gold/ Her hardest hue to hold/ Her early leaf’s a flower/ But only so an hour.”
Oh my God, someone says in disbelief. In an era considered post-literate, people still memorize poetry. The surprise sends a ripple of giggles bouncing off the walls in a way that the burning church analogy cannot. Not yet.
M — then completes the stanza, reading from The Outsiders: “Then leaf subsides to leaf/ So Eden sank to grief/ So dawn goes down to day/ Nothing gold can stay.”
There’s a pause, a rare thing in the midst of these bookworms. They follow the sun in the poem. “It was talking about, like, sunrises?” M — continues, “and how the first color of the sunrise is like gold, and it only stays there a little bit.”
“Ponyboy told that poem to Johnny while they were hiding at the church.” recalls A — .
“And the last words Johnny said to Ponyboy were, ‘Stay gold,’” M — says. “Like, don’t lose your…”
“Don’t lose your innocence,” A — finishes.
Donnell Alexander is a Portland-based creator of cultural content who hopes to soon be disqualified from writing first-person pieces about economic hardship.
Co-published with Bright.