How books change as we age

I remember reading S.E. Hinton’s novel That Was Then, This Is Now back around the summer of 1988 as my parents and I drove up to Oklahoma (Hinton’s home state) to help my grandmother get moved into a new home. I remember that summer Heart’s song These Dreams played on the radio a lot, so anytime I think of this short paperback that song inevitably plays in my mind.

Here’s the book in a nutshell: Bryon and Mark have been life-long friends; they are more like brothers. But as they age, they grow apart: Bryon grows to hate fights while Mark still likes them. The brother of Bryon’s girlfriend has a bad LSD trip, and when Bryon sees Mark is selling drugs, he decides to turn him in. It ends badly as Mark “disowns” Bryon and Bryon ends up breaking up with his girlfriend.

The book ends with Bryon visiting Mark in prison and realizing Mark’s a lost cause. (Mark’s character later dies in a subsequent Hinton novel Tex). Bryon says in the book’s final sentence, “I wish I was a teenager again, back when I had all the answers.”

When I finished reading, my 15-year-old mind couldn’t process such a dull, dark ending. What a stupid book, I thought.

Now, as an adult who’s matured both as a person and as a writer, I have a completely different take. Maybe it’s because I’ve learned that life’s seldom fair, or maybe it’s because I’ve grown to prefer dark endings over the happy ones. When I look back, I see it as a book of a young man who struggles with grasping adulthood and losing his adolescent innocence. He loses his “brother” and his girlfriend and sees the life of an innocent boy ruined.

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