My sixth grade teacher, Mr. Smith, did a lot of great stuff with our class. He made everything creative. We had to research endangered animals and lay out plans for a zoo exhibit for them. We wrote short stories based on Chris van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. For math, we had to create word problems, and I made a running series about a farmer named Bob Joe Billy Bob who was constantly calculating the square footage of his eggplant patch.
He also read us Lois Lowry’s The Giver. This novel introduced me to dystopian fiction, and to the concept of subversion. Imaginatively and emotionally, it gripped me. Lowry is already one of America’s most revered writers of young adult fiction (her World War II-era novel Number the Stars also won the Newberry), and deservedly so. Her writing hits that rare mark: aimed at young teens, but equally engaging for adults to read. Since I remember the book so fondly, and since I spend 10 or 12 months per year teaching teens, and because I have to teach the book next school year, I reread it this summer.
A young man named Jonas lives in The Community, where there is no color, no sensation, no inequality, no death. Children are assigned families at birth, maximum two per family. Sexual feeling is suppressed with a pill. When they turn twelve, they undergo The Ceremony of Twelve, marking passage into adulthood. They are assigned jobs based upon their skills and personalities. If a spouse is selected for them, they wed. When citizens grow too old, they are Released. There is no notion of life outside The Community.But when Jonas turns twelve, he is chosen to be the new Receiver of Memory, a position that has been held by the same man for decades. Through his interactions with his mentor, he discovers color, feeling, and love, but also pain, suffering, and death. The novel encourages hope in a bleak, bleak world. What I didn’t know after reading The Giver was that it was only the first in a series of four books! (I didn’t know because the second book, Gathering Blue, came out in 2000, by which time I was in 11th grade). Gathering Blue doesn’t take place in The Community, and Jonas is nowhere to be seen. Kira is an orphan with a crippled leg. She is to be killed, but she convinces the elders of her village to let her prove her worth. They give her the task of mending the robes for the singer of the Ruin Song, the village’s most sacred rite. In this task, she makes several friends and allies, including Thomas, a carver, Jo, the future singer, and Matt, a thief and scavenger. Matt really is the most memorable character in the book, outshining the strong-silent-type Kira.
While the story is not as immediately grabbing as The Giver, in some ways it is a richer and more vibrant tale. The book has a flavor of Ursula K. LeGuin. The connection with The Giver is thematic. In both books, the questions about our how our livelihoods, our desires, our character, and our society all clash and connect.
In the next book, Messenger, Jonas’ and Kira’s worlds unite.
Messenger follows Matt as a young teen (now Matty). His life in the Village had been idyllic, now that he’s straightened up and abandoned his grubby, thieving ways. But things in The Village ain’t so great any more. Refugees are bringing poverty and discontent and irritating technology with them. So what does the Village vote to do? Close the borders! Matty takes it upon himself to spread word about the closing and to find Kira to return with him (spoiler alert: she isn’t killed at the end of Gathering Blue). He ends up learning a lot about himself in the process.
My reaction to Messenger was mixed. A bit of ax-grinding got in the way of a good story. For example, the Village has been introduced to Gaming Machines, a fancy new tech that is takes up everyone’s time and creativity. Lowry seems to be taking out some frustration (however well deserved) Playstation and XBox. And the scorn for isolationism (again, however well deserved) rings too obviously as a comment on American politics. I found these thematic intrusions a little irritating. And yet, in some ways Messenger is a more finely crafted and poignant novel than the first two. The connections between Jonas’s Community and Kira’s Village are also made clearer.
The fourth novel, Son, is the longest at almost 400 pages. But it has a lot to tie up. Without spoiling too much, the events of The Giver are told through the eyes of Claire, a Birthmother. It’s a fairly lightweight career: make three babies, then retire (essentially), but it isn’t held in much respect, either. When Claire gives birth, she is vaguely informed that something went wrong, she would bear no more children, and she was being reassigned. As per Community rules, she isn’t allowed to see her Product, but through a little snooping and some coincidence, she finds her son. This is the first half of the novel. When he is taken from The Community, however, she embarks on a voyage to recover him.
I always held The Giver in extremely high regard, but Son tops it. Jonas is special, a Chosen One archetype. But Claire is average, maybe below average. Life in The Giver is bleak but the story content doesn’t get really grim until the end. In Son, Lowry tackles prickly topics early on. In the first two chapters, a teenage girl is forcibly impregnated by artificial insemination, and then her child is taken from her. Tough stuff. Son expands on the creative world of The Giver, too. The plot of The Giver is actually pretty static, but Son has an active plot with a determined protagonist. And perhaps what makes Son most gripping is the conflict. The conflict of The Giver is intellectual, the desire to bring sensation and memory to the community. The conflict of Son is visceral, though: a young mother is on a quest to recover her child. Perhaps my status as a “new dad” makes this element more poignant for me. But having finished Son, I now feel like Lowry’s cycle introduced me to a world, expanded it, complicated it, then brought it back together with ten times the force. So if you enjoyed The Giver, (and I’ve never met someone who read it that hasn’t), then I highly encourage you to seek out the other novels.