Sunday, November 11, 2012

Book Review: The Giver

I've read The Giver by Lois Lowry countless times over the years.  I read it first as a young teenager myself, then again when Lowry published Gathering Blue and then The Messenger, both of which are companion novels to The Giver.  I also had the joy of teaching this awesome book to my high school seniors.  In the district where I taught, the students originally read The Giver in sixth grade, and then we re-taught it in English 12.  The idea was to show students the joy of re-reading a good book, as well as showing them how one book can be read on so many different levels.  Most of my students told me that The Giver was their favorite book in all of English 12, and they were all shocked by how much was in it that they didn't understand when they read it as kids.

The Giver was THE first distinctive young adult (or some would say children's) dystopian novel, the yardstick by which all others are measured.  It is told from an innocent 12-year-old's point of view, and readers become so immersed in his voice that it's easy to miss the implications of the "pills," "release," and "Birthmothers."  What Lowry initially presents as the perfect society is slowly revealed to be oppressive.

In 12-year-old Jonas's world, there are no colors, no music, and no true emotions.  Family units are created when adults apply for a spouse and are assigned one by the Council of Elders.  Eventually, the Council will assign each family unit with one male and one female child.  When the children are grown and the children settled into careers of their own (also assigned by the Council), the parents then go to live with the other Childless Adults, and eventually on to the facility that cares for the Old.  Children have no contact with their parents after moving out of the homes in which they grew up.... but then again, "love" does not exist, so children really have no motivation to seek their parents out.  Every minute detail of the citizens' daily lives is determined for them, from how they spend their time to what they eat for each meal (delivered to their doors at prescribed times each day, with caloric content carefully figured for each person to keep all citizens at optimum weights).  When citizens become too Old, they are released to Elsewhere--a joyful ceremony, though no one seems to quite know where this "Elsewhere" is, as they are not permitted to travel outside their own community.

Then, at the Ceremony of Twelve, where all citizens (turning 12 years old) are assigned their future profession, Jonas is "selected" as the Receiver of Memory.  Neither he nor any of the other citizens really knows what that entails, just that it is a position of great honor that will set him apart from the rest of his community.  He begins lessons with an Elder who tells Jonas to call him "the Giver."  The Giver transmits memories of the past--the time before the community--to Jonas, thus teaching him about emotions, families, and colors.  And Jonas realizes that he can no longer be part of his society.  In the end, Jonas flees from the community--taking with him a Newchild named Gabriel who is scheduled for Release.

The end of The Giver is wide open for interpretation.  For years, I had great conversations about what might happen.  Do Jonas and Gabe make it to safety?  Or are the lights that he sees part of just another oppressive community?  Or is he imagining the lights, hallucinating as he freezes to death?  My only regret about the publication of Son, Lowry's long-awaited sequel, is that it eliminates some of the possibilities--but the story of Son itself definitely does not disappoint.

If you have not read The Giver, or if you haven't read it since you were a young teen yourself, do yourself a favor and get your hands on a copy.  It's a captivating read, each and every time.

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