Friday, September 5, 2014

Newbery Medal Series: The Giver by Lois Lowry

The Giver was published in 1993 and awarded the Newbery Medal in 1994. Synopsis from back cover: "Jonas's world is perfect. Everything is under control. There is no war or fear or pain. There are no choices. Every person is assigned a role in the Community. When Jonas turns twelve, he is singled out to receive special training from The Giver. The Giver alone holds the memories of the true pain and pleasure of life. Now, it is time for Jonas to receive the truth. There is no turning back."

Is there a difference between a dystopia and a false utopia? I feel like the distinction should be made. Also, because I fell down a rabbit hole on Goodreads last week when I read a scathing (and overly long) review of The Giver and then many of the two-hundred plus comments on it, I feel that I should say that I actually felt a large degree of sympathy for the Elders and creators of Jonas's community.  They weren't evil. They weren't trying to be harsh or despotic. They were trying to engineer the perfect community, and they thought they could do that with their assignments and precise language and incontrovertible rules. 

I read this once years ago and then again last February. I don't usually do plot summaries in book reviews, but since the synopsis here is quite brief, I should probably say a little more (bearing in mind that I've already forgotten stuff in the intervening six months): Jonas lives in a 'Community', isolated from others, where life is conducted by a strict set of rules and laws. Everyone is assigned a role according to their talents (not their desires) at the age of twelve. Children are borne by Birthmothers ("there's very little honor in that assignment", Jonas's mother says at one point), then removed and given to Nurturers, and then assigned to approved couples, one boy and one girl each. Babies ('newchildren' who don't grow as fast as they should or sleep through the night (or are otherwise Inadequate), and the elderly, as well as people who transgress against the Community's rules, are 'released' - this is a vague term until later in the book. 

As the book begins, Jonas is approaching the Ceremony of Twelve, where he'll be given his Assignment - assigned his role in the Community (Assignments include Birthmother, Laborer, Instructor, Engineer, Doctor, and many others). He spends some time trying to be precise in his language about exactly how he's feeling about this; he begins with the word frightened, amends it to eager, and finally sharpens it to apprehensive. Precision in language is a valued thing in the Community, which you have to kind of like (okay, I have to kind of like). 

Photo by Gidzy
Jonas is given the Assignment (it is termed a rare selection) of Receiver of Memory. This confers upon him unusual privileges such as the permission to ask questions of any citizen and receive answers (in others, this is prohibited by the rules governing rudeness), and the permission to lie. It also means he trains with the previous Receiver of Memory, who contains by some magical phenomenon (okay, now that I'm typing this it bugs me a little), "the memories of the whole world", and will begin to transmit these memories to Jonas.

So. There you have it. An attempt to create a utopian society by legislating out much of the messiness of human nature, and then (foolishly?) granting to an intelligent member of that society the power to begin questioning it, which leads to a bunch of dominoes falling. It's not the only time this story has been told, and perhaps it's not even the best telling, but I found it very effective. Eve read it a few weeks ago - she even put down An Abundance of Katherines to do so, which is saying something, since she's in the midst of a total John Green love-fest - and she said she really liked it too, although I meant to ask her for some specific thoughts on it before she went to school today and I forgot. 

I can see this book appealing to young readers - older young readers, many of whom definitely have a taste for dystopic fiction. It's also the kind of book where higher levels of understanding and insight can be gained on successive re-readings.


Lynn said...

I read this quite recently, and I really liked it - a very moving story and I kind of loved the ending. My friend Jen saw me reading it and mentioned that her daughter had to read it for school when she was in grade 7, and it was HUGE for her - she cried, multiple times, and the whole "released" thing came as a big shock to her and she couldn't stop talking about it. So I think this is maybe an even bigger hit with younger kids, maybe who haven't read a lot of other dystopian stuff and so don't see things coming.

One time I forced my husband to watch Casablanca with me, and he hated it, because it was "so derivative," and I was flabbergasted because, hello, THIS WAS THE ORIGINAL from which all other similar movies came. I feel this way about The Giver - it's not as complex and meaty as, say, Divergent or The Hunger Games, so you might brush it off as being a pale imitation, when actually, this was the book that started it all. So major kudos to Lois Lowry for inspiring a whole generation of authors.

Steph Lovelady said...

Noah and I read this together about a year ago and we just saw the movie. Other than the normal book-to-movie complaints, which I won't even go into here, I enjoyed it.

I saw an article somewhere recently about how The Giver (and the Hunger Game and Divergent) is right wing propaganda because they're all against the state and liberal social engineering. It was interesting but I'm not sure I buy it. It's not exactly like reading Ayn Rand or it doesn't feel that way. Also, Harry Potter was cited tangentially and I don't even follow that argument because the liberal message of tolerance is pretty strong there.

Maria said...

I've always loved this book, but the first time that I read it to my daughter, she was enraged at the vague ending. I admit that I sort of liked the vagueness of it, I filled in the dots on my own.

We saw the movie together last weekend and we both disliked it very, very much. But, hey...most movies just can't match the books. We read those books and the characters become very personal to us and to expect the movie to please us is asking a great deal. The only movie that ever came close for me was To Kill A Mockingbird.

Hannah said...

I haven't read this one and I'm not sure why... this intrigues me, though. I'll definitely give it a try.

Courtney said...

I've actually never read this book... even though (or maybe partially because) everyone seems to rave about it...

Nicole said...

I am pretty sure I haven't read this, although the plot seems very similar to Handmaid's Tale, Brave New World, etc. Is it a children's book?

Mary Lynn said...

Hey, the first Scholastic flyer came home from school this week and The Giver was on it. Ordered it for Hana (and me) to read. You should probably get some sort of kickback for the extra sales.