The Giver by Lois Lowry
This is the first of my reviews for the Banned Book Challenge. Go to the main post on StephSuReads' site here and my post discussing the challenge here.
In the "ideal" world into which Jonas was born, everybody has sensibly agreed that well-matched married couples will raise exactly two offspring, one boy and one girl. These children's adolescent sexual impulses will be stifled with specially prescribed drugs; at age 12 they will receive an appropriate career assignment, sensibly chosen by the community's Elders. This is a world in which the old live in group homes and are "released"--to great celebration--at the proper time; the few infants who do not develop according to schedule are also "released," but with no fanfare.
Lowry's development of this civilization is so deft that her readers, like the community's citizens, will be easily seduced by the chimera of this ordered, pain-free society. Until the time that Jonas begins training for his job assignment--the rigorous and prestigious position of Receiver of Memory--he, too, is a complacent model citizen. But as his near-mystical training progresses, and he is weighed down and enriched with society's collective memories of a world as stimulating as it was flawed, Jonas grows increasingly aware of the hypocrisy that rules his world.
I picked up The Giver in 7th or 8th grade, shortly after it was awarded the Newbery Medal. It was my first foray into the dystopia genre. Initially, I was completely taken with Jonas's Utopian society and did not expect the dark twist the book soon took. I was charmed by Jonas's content life: his friends Asher and Fiona, his cute little sister Lily and her "comfort object," and the simplicity and routine of his life. I loved the idea of everyone being assigned a job at 12 years old; the ceremony of ages was fascinating. I wanted to experience all the wonders Jonas's society had to offer. Re-reading the book, I see dozens of hints that Jonas's society is far more disturbing than it appears on the surface: required reporting of feelings and dreams, physical punishment for merely mispronouncing words, lack of options, the list goes on...
Jonas doesn't question his society until he is named as the new Receiver of Memories, a highly honored position. His training entails being given all the memories of the past of things obliterated in this controlled society. The memories are good: color, snow, music, love; but the memories are also bad: hunger, warfare, death. Jonas now wonders whether the safety and stability of his world is worth the lack of freedom, of beauty, of happiness.
Looking back now, I was surprised how short it is. Lowry packs a huge amount of substance into barely 200 pages. The transfer of memories doesn't even start until almost halfway through the book. Part of me wishes the book was longer, and we saw more of Jonas's training. If you look at the book with a critical eye, you could say that the transitions are rather harsh. Things happen almost too quickly. But I never noticed that on my many re-reads as a kid. The book still manages to feel complete. The brevity shows Lowry's skill as a writer.
The Giver has been challenged many times by parents and school districts. People have accused the book of dealing with sexuality (which seems pretty ridiculous); euthanasia (true, but provokes discussion); the occult (I suppose the idea of transferring memories seems fantastical); and my favorite, it is negative ("This book is negative. I read it. I don't see the academic value in it. Everything presented to the kids should be positive or historical, not negative.”). One particularly extreme reviewer said that "The Giver is in service to Lucifer." It's easy to criticize a book that you don't like as "evil." I'm most disturbed by shutting down the book because it is "negative." Spurring thought-provoking discussion about government, freedom, and life itself is far from negative. It is a critical element to education. The twelve or thirteen year olds this book is written for are precisely at the age where they are capable of seeing not only black and white, but some gray also. The Giver is an opportunity for growth and something I think all kids should have the opportunity to read.
Quotes from Tuckahoe Library's Blog and Bookslut.
What did you think happened at the end of the book? Of course, from the companion books written years later, we now know what happened. But whether Jonas lived or died at the end of the book was a controversial debate. I never once thought Jonas had died. Call me simplistic, but I took the ending of the sled and music completely at face value. It wasn't until my mother read the book when I was in college, and I began reading critical discussion of the novel that I even thought the ending was questionable. Many reviewers thought Jonas's vision was really a hallucination or symbolic of his journey to Elsewhere upon his death.
Rating: 5 / 5