Bryon and Mark are best friends. They have lived together with Bryon’s mother ever since Mark’s parents shot each other in a drunken brawl. The boys hang out at Charlie’s Bar and earn money by hustling pool. Charlie tells the pair that M&M, a younger Hippie boy, is looking for them. Bryon and Mark find M&M in time to stop Curly Shepard and his Greaser gang from beating M&M up. The “Hippies” are a new group and the lines between the two former groups, the “Greasers” and “Socs,” are becoming blurred.
The following day, Bryon and Mark visit Bryon’s mother in the hospital. While there, Bryon meets Cathy Carlson, M&M’s older sister, who works in the snack bar. Bryon is taken with Cathy and hopes to see her again. Bryon and Mark also visit Mike Chambers, a boy Bryon’s mother befriends. Mike is recovering from a beating after being falsely accused of harming a young African American girl. Mike tells Bryon and Mark what happened, how he actually saved the girl from being harassed by a group of whites. Mike drove the girl home and his car was surrounded by a group of African American kids. They pulled him from the car and nearly beat him to death when the girl lied, claiming Mike hurt her. Despite the beating, Mike does not hate African Americans. When he thinks about it from the girl’s viewpoint, he can almost understand why she lied. After the visit ends, Bryon and Mark discuss Mike’s misfortune. Mark does not share Mike’s understanding of the factors that caused the girl to lie. Mark states that if anyone ever hurt him like that, he would hate them forever.
Mrs. Douglas’s hospital stay causes financial stress. The boys are forced to look for jobs, but they do not have much luck. Bryon asks Charlie for a job. Charlie refuses because Bryon is underage. Charlie also doubts Bryon’s honesty in certain areas, though he does trust Bryon enough to loan him his car so Bryon can take Cathy to a school dance.
At the dance, Bryon’s former girlfriend, Angela Shepard, starts a fight intending to punish Ponyboy Curtis for failing to respond to her advances. Unfortunately, Mark is the unintended recipient of a bottle to the head. Bryon leaves Cathy at the dance and goes with Mark to the hospital. Mark gets stitched up. Ponyboy hotwires Charlie’s car and brings Cathy to the hospital. Bryon takes over driving duty, dropping off Ponyboy and Cathy and finally taking Mark home. The boys stay up talking. Mark tells Bryon that even though they are not blood relations, he feels like they are “real” brothers.
After Mark recovers, the boys go to Charlie’s Bar to make some money hustling pool. Bryon manages to hustle a couple of Texans, who are not happy to lose their money. The Texans wait for the boys outside, intent on teaching them a lesson. Charlie realizes the boys are in trouble and attempts to save them. The boys witness Charlie’s death when the Texans shoot him.
In the weeks that follow, the boys struggle to make sense of Charlie’s death. Meanwhile, the financial strife at home grows worse. Mrs. Douglas is hospitalized again. Mark gives Mrs. Douglas money but will not reveal where it is coming from. Mark grows distant. Bryon finds himself frequently turning to Cathy for support instead.
M&M disappears. Bryon and Cathy search but do not find him. Bryon and Mark get Angela drunk and cut her hair as payback for Mark’s injury in the earlier fight. Mark is jealous of Cathy, and the distance between the boys grows. Bryon questions whether he knows who Mark really is. The Shepard brothers beat Bryon up for cutting Angela’s hair, but, instead of retaliating, Bryon chooses to deal with them by not hating them, a lesson learned from Mike’s experience with the African Americans who beat him.
Mark lets it slip that he might know where M&M is. By the time M&M is found, he is on a bad acid trip. He is hallucinating and scared. Bryon and Cathy take him to the hospital. The doctors try to treat him, but there is no guarantee that he will make a full recovery. Later that night, Bryon discovers a container of pills in Mark’s room. He realizes that Mark has been making money selling drugs and may even be the one responsible for M&M’s condition. Bryon calls the police and turns Mark in.
Mark is sentenced to five years in the state reformatory. Bryon distances himself from everyone, including Cathy. Later, Bryon visits Mark in prison. Mark tells Bryon that he hates him. Bryon tries to apologize but Mark will not listen. Bryon pleads for forgiveness, reminding Mark of their friendship and brotherly bond. Mark turns Bryon’s words against him when he says, “Like a friend once told me, ’That was then, and this is now.’” Bryon leaves, numb and worn out, wishing to be a kid again, at an age when he seemed to have all the answers.
In many ways, That Was Then, This Is Now is a sequel to The Outsiders, for the setting in this second Hinton novel is similar, and some of the same characters appear. It is a few years later, however, and the concerns in this adolescent world have changed.
Mark Jennings, fifteen, has been living with Bryon Douglas and his mother since Mark’s parents killed each other in a drunken fight seven years before. Mark and Bryon, the sixteen-year-old narrator of the novel, are as close as brothers—and perhaps too close. As the story unravels, it becomes apparent that Mark has been dealing drugs, and it is those drugs that permanently damage M&M, the brother of Bryon’s girlfriend, Cathy Carlson. Bryon grows in the course of the novel, especially in his relationship with Cathy, but Mark does not. When Bryon discovers the truth about Mark, he turns him over to the police, and the younger boy is sentenced to five years in the state reformatory.
Bryon does not have the consolation of Cathy; feeling guilty over what he has done to Mark, Bryon pushes her away, and she is going out with an older Ponyboy Curtis at novel’s end. The novel thus concludes on a sad and somber note: Bryon wishes that he were a kid again, “when I had all the answers.” He has left the security of childhood and paid a high price for his growth to maturity, losing his two best friends in the process. There are, he has learned, few easy answers to life’s tough questions.
While characterization in That Was Then, This Is Now may be somewhat unsophisticated, character development certainly is not; there is a definite, if gradual, growth that is missing in Hinton’s first novel. Bryon grows to be able to care about people outside his family: Cathy, M&M, and others. Caring does not guarantee happiness, Hinton implies—“Nothing can wear you out like caring about people,” Mark complains at one point—but it is the only full way to live. The novel ends on a depressing note, uncharacteristic for such an early young adult novel but a realistic sign of things to come in the genre.
That Was Then, This Is Now extends the themes of The Outsiders. Readers learn the limitations to the lessons of loyalty, for example: Loyalty to the gang was simpler in the first novel, but here loyalty is conditioned by time and place, and a character may be forced to turn in a sibling if he or she violates the law.
The world of That Was Then, This Is Now, in short, is broader and more complex than that of The Outsiders, yet Hinton is even more programmatic in this second book. She clearly has messages she wishes to send to young readers: about the dangers of drugs (both taking and dealing them), about the limits of group loyalty, and about the complexity of the real social world. If Hinton tends to be more realistic in her downbeat conclusion here, the lessons along the way seem much more didactic.
At the same time, the style of the second novel seems looser than the first. Bryon’s narrative voice does not have the same compelling conviction as does Ponyboy’s in The Outsiders. Hinton seems to know—and to like—Ponyboy better, and Bryon’s slangy adolescent voice is often vague. Setting, as in the original, is generalized; profanity and sexual activity are again both missing. Literary language, on the other hand, as in most of Hinton’s work, is quite effective. Mark, for example, is consistently characterized through the novel’s imagery as a lion.
That Was Then, This Is Now does not have the spark of Hinton’s first novel. The author at age twenty-one had lost a certain freshness she had at seventeen and had not yet been able to replace it with sufficient knowledge or experience. That Was Then, This Is Now has several important themes and good character development, but it lacks the force and vitality of The Outsiders.