Lois Lowry’s The Giver, published in 1993, has become an iconic title in the kidlit pantheon. Winner of the Newbery medal and countless other honors, devoured in community reads across the country, debated by 7th-graders nationwide, The Giver was dystopian before dystopian became cool. Lowry at first didn’t consider writing a companion book, but she ended up writing three, the last of which appeared two months ago.
To bring us all up to speed, the original book skillfully creates a utopian society—which actually sounds a lot like the ideal PC elementary school—that slowly and chillingly becomes the opposite of utopian. As is required by most novels of this sort, some catastrophe has occurred that causes the leaders of the Community to impose “Sameness” on all the residents: children march in lockstep through their yearly development, family units are organized from on high with matched couples assigned one girl and one boy each, occupations are handed down rather than chosen, and undesirables are “released.” Jonas, 11 years old when the story opens, is anxiously awaiting news of his life’s work, which is to be revealed at the Ceremony of Twelves. When the anticipated moment arrives, he is stunned to learn that he’s been selected for a role he’s never heard of: that of “Receiver” of the Community’s memories.
The current Receiver, now called the Giver, is an old man stooped and wrinkled with humanity’s past experiences. As he gradually transmits his memories to Jonas, the reader becomes aware of how minimal life in the Community really is. Jonah is able to remember, as though he actually experienced them, warmth and cold, snow and sun, firelight, Christmas, real family—as well as war, starvation, loneliness and terror. The more he experiences, the more dissatisfied he becomes with the Community. Finally he learns that a baby boy to whom he’s become attached is scheduled to be “released”—actually euthanized. Jonas escapes from the Community on a stolen bicycle with the baby, Gabriel, strapped to the child seat behind him, and at the end of a tortuous journey it appears they have found a refuge.
Lowry was asked what happened to Gabriel so many times that she decided to extend the story, though the boy isn’t mentioned at all in Gathering Blue (2000) and receives scant notice in Messenger (2004). Those two books are about other societies, less regulated than the Community but plagued by their own problems. Neither are especially successful in my opinion, as they wander into allegorical territory at the expense of character development. In the last and final book of the quartet, the author returns to a strong protagonist–who isn’t Gabriel.
This is Claire, a member of the original Community in a time period roughly parallel to The Giver. At her own ceremony of Twelves, Claire was selected as a Birthmother, or breeder. Though everyone insists on the importance of the job, it’s low-status: she is expected to artificially conceive and gestate three “products,” after which she’ll be reassigned to some undemanding position until release. (The numbers don’t add up, as there can’t be enough birth mothers to produce the required fifty babies/year if they’re limited to three–but who’s counting?) Her first birth has complications, leading to a caesarian delivery. The Community can’t tolerate abnormality, so Claire is excused from her further birthing duties and reassigned to the fish hatchery.
But she can’t forget her baby, even though all she knows is his sex and his number (36). “She had never yearned for anything before. But now, ever since the day of the birth, she felt a yearning constantly, desperately, to fill the emptiness inside her.” Yearning is forbidden; hence the Pill that all Community members take daily after the onset of puberty. But Birthmothers don’t receive the Pill (for reasons unexplained but no doubt hormonal) and after her reassignment Claire doesn’t take the pills she’s given, so she never again settles into the bland contentment Sameness requires. When Jonas escapes, so does she, into adventures that will destroy her identity and then rebuild it.
Claire’s development is well-drawn, making this the most engaging sequel since the original book. The first part, which takes place in the Community, links Gabriel’s birth to Claire’s awakening as a human being. The second is her growth-and-development stage, in which she must learn independence, and in the third she must re-learn dependence while finding her place in another community. This last part is told from Gabriel’s point of view, and feels a bit hasty and tacked-on, especially when it comes to defeating the ultimate enemy.
Lowry is good at raising questions but, lacking a transcendent center, she can’t supply much in the way of answers. Not that fiction is supposed to supply answers–the problem is, she tries. Not so much in The Giver, which is open to interpretation, but in Messenger, a vague conflict leads to a vague conclusion (evil is imaginary?), and Son loses its focus when the point of view shifts. I like the idea of desire as that which makes us truly human as well as that which trips us into doom; the contrast between the Community and the Village is instructive on that subject. Evil feeds on lust and dissatisfaction and failure, and (in Claire’s case) twists lawful love into a thing of despair—but it’s located outside, rather than a resident of the heart from birth. Claire–and actually every other character in the whole quartet–is its victim, not its perpetrator. Her love is eventually returned, which allows it to bloom and gives the quartet a happy ending. But readers may not be that much wiser about what evil actually is and how it’s overcome.
- Worldview/moral value: 3
- Literary value: 4
The Giver is a classic teen dystopia novel. For more on this genre, see our thoughts about Above World, The Unwanteds, The Hungry Cities, Insurgent, Unwind, A Clockwork Orange, and, of course, The Hunger Games. And here’s our download on the genre itself.