That Was Then, This Is Now by S.E. Hinton

When I was growing up I loved S.E. Hinton’s books, and especially The Outsiders and That Was Then, This is Now. On a recent trip home I found a copy of That Was Then, This is Now. Not mine, but thanks to a cousin I had an opportunity to re-read a book that defined a generation of readers.

Essentially the book is about growing up and friendship in inner-city America. Bryon and Mark are as close as brothers, and they have faced the somewhat dangerous streets of their hometown together. In their 16th year things begin to change for both of them, and those changes define who they will be and will change their friendship forever. Told through the eyes of Bryon in his own language we experience those life changing experiences first hand.

I loved the re-read of this book. The Outsiders was my first and favourite S.E. Hinton novel, and I had read That Was Then, This Is Now on the back enjoying that book and it had always been second best. But reading it by itself I appreciated the strong characters and the serious themes this book dealt with. Central to the book is the friendship between the two boys, and how this is altered when Bryon gets serious about a girl. Also central to the book is the violence young boys feel and how that alters as they get older, and how this change forms who they will become. The other two central elements to the books are drug use and how we view right and wrong. All of these are things that children still struggle with, and in that way the book is still relevant today.

However, when I read the book I realised that children today will view these books a little like my generation viewed Enid Blyton’s books, as an insight into a past that is almost like reading a historical novel. I had to laugh when one of the characters said they had to call their father so could they please use the phone, and they were taken to where the phone was in the house. No teenager today would be seen dead without their mobile!

I have spent a while mulling whether the fact the book was so rooted in the past affected the message this book brought to my generation and, on reflection, I think not. Just as children still read The Secret Seven and The Famous Five and love the children for their independence, problem solving skills and their courage, I think teenagers today would still relate to the growing pains of the teenagers in That Was Then, This Is Now. I initially read this book growing up in small town New Zealand, about as far away from the poverty and violence of inner-city America as you could get, and the messages still resonated with me. And so I think that the message will transcend the leap back in time and still make this a thought-provoking read for today’s teenagers.

In that way I guess a good book is a good book forever.

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