Read an acclaimed book almost twenty years after it comes out and you’re picking it up with some high expectations, expecting it to teach you something new about this life. You want it to hit you hard. It’s not that you’re looking for a fight, more like a force with impact. Nevermind that it’s for children and you’re an adult. Sound fair?
I never read The Giver by Lois Lowry. It came out just after I left grade school. Had I read it then, it probably would have been my introduction to Utopian ideals distorted into Dystopian realities. Next to A Wrinkle in Time and Number the Stars (another Lowry book), it probably would have been a favorite. Today not so much and for silly-ish reasons. Use words like “Utopia” or “Dystopia” in conversation and I will turn around and run away. There’s a place in fiction for these concepts: in the corner far far away from me and my snickerdoodles.
Jonas is apprehensive. His year of 12 ceremony is fast approaching, and with that his assignment. He doesn’t want to be a nurturer like his father, or a laborer, but he has to be something. If Jonas doesn’t like his assignment, the options are grim. There’s a rumored possibility of swimming the river to the next community. Worst case scenario is that he’ll be released, which is incomprehensible in part because he has no idea what that means.
December arrives and Jonas is already taking a pill to stop the dreams he has about girls, stirrings. This is a society in which marriages are arranged and monitored for three years before a couple can apply for their first of two possible children. It’s no place for school boy crushes. The ceremony concludes with –
We thank you for your childhood.
– and finally the story picks up momentum.
Selected to be the next Receiver of Memory, Jonas is to spend his days receiving all the memories of humanity from his predecessor, The Giver. There are no rules to this role. Unlike everyone else in the community, he doesn’t have to apologize for anything, or talk about his dreams. He can even tell lies. The one catch is that he cannot be released.
Soon Jonas alone will know what it feels like to sled down a hill and read something that’s not a text book. He’s warned there will be pain, but lacks the reference points to understand emotional agony or excruciating physical trauma until he feels it for himself. As the year progresses, he struggles to fit memories of a world before sameness into his predictable, orderly day-to-day.
He had walked through the woods, and sat at night beside a campfire. Although he had through the memories learned about the pain of loss and loneliness, now he gained, too, an understanding of solitude and its joy.
Son, the fourth and final book in this series, came out this year, which is probably why The Giver bumped up to the top of my pile. Kids should be taught to question everything, and this story prods you to do just that. It’s clear why Lowry won a Newbery for this story.
I’m a big fan of Lois Lowry’s writing. Her style is deceptively simple, which serves her heavy subjects well. That said, I didn’t love this story and that’s puts me in the minority. I’m curious to know what kids who don’t pick it apart in school think of it, but since my oldest niece is only 4, and I’m scared of all children not related to me, that will have to wait – unless they make The Giver into the worst pop-up book ever.