That Was Then, This Is Now Essay - Critical Evaluation

S. E. Hinton

Critical Evaluation

Critics praised S. E. Hinton’s sophomore effort. That Was Then, This Is Now was voted one of the Best Books for Young Adults by the American Library Association in 1971. Some incorrectly called the book a sequel to The Outsiders (1967), possibly due to cameo appearances by characters from the earlier novel, such as Ponyboy Curtis, Tim Shepard, and Curly Shepard. The central story of Mark and Bryon’s friendship has no relation to the events portrayed in The Outsiders. The appearance of the established characters is used to illustrate that times have changed, a literal interpretation of the title.

That Was Then, This Is Now is a more controlled novel than its predecessor, perhaps as a result of Hinton’s process in writing it. After the success of The Outsiders, Hinton struggled with writer’s block for nearly three years. When she was writing for fun, it was easy, but when writing became Hinton’s “real” job, she was overwhelmed with the prospect of writing something as good as The Outsiders. Hinton was able to beat the block when her future husband, David Inhofe, demanded that she start writing again and set a quota of two pages per day.

Hinton claims that she writes stories based on characters rather than problems because over time problems will change while characters endure. However, That Was Then, This Is Now incorporates many “problems” into its plot. Hinton tackles race relations, drug abuse, and teenage violence. Instead of preaching concrete solutions to readers, Hinton lets her characters muddle through these tough issues and allows her readers to draw their own conclusions about how to best solve these problems. Perhaps this is the reason that Hinton’s works resonate so well with the young adult audience. Teenagers do not want adults telling them what to do in real life. It would be presumptuous for an author to subject readers to that kind of treatment in fiction.

Hinton’s decision to incorporate cameo appearances by characters from The Outsiders is a curious one. Tim and Curly Shepard are minor characters in The Outsiders. They are mentioned early on in the book as rivals who are looking for Dally to settle a score. When push comes to shove and the rumble between the Greasers and Socs occurs, the Shepards fight side by side with Ponyboy and company. They join forces to defeat the Socs, their common enemy.

In That Was Then, This Is Now, the Shepards beat Bryon in retaliation for cutting Angela’s hair. They act as readers would expect them to act given their history. Readers do not learn anything new about the Shepards as a result of this interaction. However, their appearance is necessary to illustrate how Bryon has grown over the course of the story. Mark wants revenge, but Bryon does not. Bryon does not hate them for beating him up; instead, he realizes that he probably deserved the beating and that future attacks would not solve anything. It is time to move on.

Ponyboy’s appearance is interesting, because readers get to see him from a different point of view than that of the earlier novel. Bryon dislikes Ponyboy, perhaps out of jealousy over his breakup with Angela. Readers may find it hard to dislike Ponyboy if they have already encountered him as a hero in The Outsiders. As Ponyboy continues to demonstrate heroic qualities through his actions, such as bringing Cathy to the hospital after Mark is injured, even Bryon finds it hard not to like him. At the end of the novel when Bryon learns that Ponyboy and Cathy are now a couple, he cannot help but hope that the pair will be happy together.

Some of the themes Hinton explored in The Outsiders are reexamined from an alternate point of view in That Was Then, This Is Now. In The Outsiders, Hinton conveyed the importance of retaining innocence and not becoming jaded by the world. In That Was Then, This Is Now, she turns the world upside down by proclaiming times are changing: Her characters must grow with them or be left behind. Gone are the days of the idealistic dreamers who watched sunsets. Growing up means having to make tough decisions. The story of how Mark and Bryon’s friendship changes over time proves that, despite one’s hopes, retaining childhood innocence is impossible. The events that unfold represent Hinton’s attempt to illustrate why this is the case.

Hinton’s theme of honor among the lawless takes a different turn when Bryon ultimately betrays Mark by turning him in for dealing drugs. Bryon has to stand up for what he personally believes is right, even though that means betraying his best friend. This theme also exists in other crime stories, in which many criminals themselves revile some crimes, particularly crimes against children. It is interesting to note which crimes are deemed acceptable and which ones are deemed to be wrong.

Hinton’s theme of bridging the gap between rich and poor also takes a different turn with the introduction of the Hippies in That Was Then, This Is Now. There are still Greasers and Socs (poor kids and rich kids), but neither group quite knows what to make of the Hippies. Hippies wear their hair long, like Greasers, but they will not fight back when jumped. Mark and Bryon decide that they are better off just leaving them alone. The days of the rumbles are ending and somehow they are managing to peacefully coexist, though that coexistence may be only temporary.

Hinton also touches on the price of loyalty. Mark stays loyal to Bryon throughout the book, despite Bryon’s relationship with Cathy. Bryon’s betrayal blindsides Mark. He is unable to understand how his best friend and surrogate brother could justify such an action.

Hinton uses animal imagery throughout the course of the novel, continually giving Mark the characteristics of a lion. Early references describe Mark as a “friendly lion,” or an “innocent lion.” Over the course of the story, the descriptions change to “dangerous lion,” or “jungle animal.” The change in descriptions mirrors the emotional closeness or distance between Mark and Bryon. By the end of the novel, Hinton’s comparison to a “dangerously caged lion” captures Mark’s hatred and rage over being sent to prison. Hinton delves deeper into the price of loyalty and the use of animal imagery becomes even more prominent in Rumble Fish (1975), her third novel.