While Hinton’s works are often characterized as “problem” novels, That Was Then, This Is Now focuses on individual personal morality and ethical choices against a backdrop of social controversies. When Charlie gets his draft notice, for example, his bad temper reflects the seriousness of the call, but no protests or demonstrations, no statistics or images of the war intrude into the narrative. Conflict is frequently internal, since the lives of these teenagers revolve around day-to-day dilemmas that have life-or-death consequences. Hinton’s characters reveal the importance of decisions about drug and alcohol use, family, work, and school, but she does not moralize. The destructive outcomes of events such as M&M’s running away from home, his involvement with an older crowd, and his use of LSD suggest that these activities need to be reevaluated. Yet, the sympathy created for M&M as a character prevents total condemnation of his behavior. Readers understand his need to escape the painful reality of his father’s criticism and the violence of his peers, but his ultimate loss of innocence and intellect teaches that these choices are costly.
Mark, too, eventually must pay for his choices, but Hinton evokes sympathy even for this drug-dealing car thief. As a nine-year-old, Mark witnessed his parents’ fatal dispute over his true parentage; other than Bryon and his soft-hearted, economically devastated mother, Mark has no one. It is understandable that he would struggle to maintain these connections, even by illegal means. Nevertheless, the implicit warning about the moral responsibility of the dealer for the user, when Bryon and the readers associate Mark’s actions with M&M’s dangerous experience, suggests that good intentions alone cannot justify illegal risks. Young readers will recognize, too, the illusion of invincibility that sustains Mark throughout most of the story; his eventual arrest reveals that even if the consequences are not immediate, they may be harsh and irrevocable.
Bryon’s choices, on the other hand, while they do not always have a happy outcome, do reflect a growing awareness of responsibility and consequences. When he compares the decency of Cathy’s family to the violence of Angela Shepard’s house, he makes a value judgment that rejects the tough ways of the street. He recognizes that violence tends to perpetuate itself, and, in choosing to prevent Mark from taking revenge on the Shepards, he hopes to break the cycle. When Bryon chooses to turn Mark in, however, he faces his most difficult internal conflict: a sense of betrayal. He turns his guilt upon himself and rejects his possible happiness with Cathy as a self-imposed punishment. Even when ethical, responsible decisions are made, Hinton implies, the consequences may not be altogether positive.