5.30.2012

Currently Reading: The Giver

The Giver (The Giver, #1)Now Jonas had a thought that he had never had before. This new thought was frightening. What if others—adults—had, upon becoming Twelves, received in their instructions the same terrifying sentence?

What if they had all been instructed: You may lie?

His mind reeled. Now, empowered to ask questions of utmost rudeness—and promised answers—he could, conceivably (though it was almost unimaginable), ask someone, some adult, his father perhaps: “Do you lie?”

But he would have no way of knowing if the answer he received were true.

Author: Lois Lowry

Synopsis: Jonas lives in a safe world, where people rarely suffer and inexorable order and politeness rule. But when he is assigned the vocation of Receiver of Memory, he learns that life has not always been so tidy, and that his community keeps some horrifying secrets to preserve the sense of safety. As his work gradually isolates him from his family and friends, Jonas plots escape, but his plans are thrown into chaos when one of the secret horrors threatens his foster brother's life.

Notes: The Giver is one of those books that regularly turns up on the challenged-book lists, primarily for material “not found suitable for children.” I suspect, though, that it's almost better to read it as a child, after you're old enough to handle things like the deaths of cute little animals on the Discovery channel, but before your mind and your comprehension of suffering have developed to maturity. If you wait till you’re in your thirties, you might find yourself in unexpected, explosive tears. Fair warning.

For the sake of concerned parents who have somehow missed this book (as I did), here's my best non-spoilerific attempt at advisory: there's a non-gory but very clearly described (and unbelievably appalling) death scene. Jonas also endures a brief but viscerally painful war memory.

The book is worth reading, however, worthy of its general status as a classic; it's thoroughly human, and the requisite grief is honest in its reinforcement of compassion and value for life. The writing style is deceptively simple, and the narrative short and readable. The apparent utopia and its horrific underpinnings are viewed through the eyes of a sensitive twelve-year-old boy, and Jonas naturally evokes sympathy. He’s so sympathetic, in fact, that it’s a surprise to realize, part way through the book, just how much of normative human experience he and his community are missing.

The tale has its faults, of course. The worldbuilding is so clearly science fiction in mood that the fantasy elements prove a bit startling. Memory transfer, which appears to be an innate magical power, comes out of nowhere; also, Lowry never explains the existence of a sky with no sun. These and other such were niggling details, but though they worked against the suspension of disbelief, they could not destroy it in light of the convincing characters and the all-too-believable inhumanity.

Thomas More's Utopia had an obvious influence on the structure of Jonas' community: family size regulations, carefully assigned work, schedules with little to no room for spontanaeity. As with More’s work, the society starts off sounding like a good idea; creepier, less human practices show up over time. Unlike its predecessor, however, The Giver portrays a couple of the resulting situations in unsoftened, stomach-turning horror, intimate and devastating. Its picture of affectionate compassion and pragmatic murder juxtaposed in the same person works as a fierce indictment of numerous attitudes and practices in modern society.

The ending is somewhat ambiguous, though the author has apparently made reference to the characters’ fate in other tales of Jonas' world. The book stands alone well enough, however, and offers hope despite its horrors and uncertainties—a hope centered in the redemptive character of Jonas. Like many a child protagonist, he sees the world with an innocent clarity, a striking purity of heart. The very hopefulness of his closing dreams and of his selfless bravery are the sort of thing that can stand between the human person and inhumanity.

Recommendation: Read it for its portrayal of courage and beauty against soul-destroying lovelessness.

7 comments:

  1. The Giver is one of my absolute favorite books. I read it in the 6th grade and many times after that. Beautiful novel.

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  2. Thanks for the great review, Jenna. The Giver is sitting on my Kindle but I'm not quite up to reading a dystopia right now.

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  3. "If you wait till you’re in your thirties, you might find yourself in unexpected, explosive tears. Fair warning."

    yes.

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  4. Jenna, this "Currently Reading" makes me so, so happy. This book will always be in my top 5 books of all time, possibly even top 3--as in, for the rest of my life. Like Vicky B. above, I first read it in 6th grade, which was the perfect age for what you noted in your review:

    "I suspect, though, that it's almost better to read it as a child, after you're old enough to handle things like the deaths of cute little animals on the Discovery channel, but before your mind and your comprehension of suffering have developed to maturity. If you wait till you’re in your thirties, you might find yourself in unexpected, explosive tears. Fair warning."

    What's interesting is, I've reread the book every 3-5 years or so ever since my first reading as a 6th grader, and my 3rd rereading of it in my early twenties (right when I started to have a sense of my own maternal potential some day) had the reaction you described in yourself as having read it in your thirties--unexpected, explosive tears of horror, at the same scene I am sure elicited that response in you. The remarkable part for me was, I knew the plot already...but didn't understand what that moment really *was* until I had reached an age of more maturity, and thus experienced that moment more fully than I had ten years or so earlier.

    Anyway, I'm thrilled you've read it and like it. I agree the end is ambiguous, and it drove me a little nuts for many years, until Lowry closed some of the threads in later volumes that create a bit of a trilogy without being utterly dependent on each other. I definitely recommend you read Gathering Blue at some point--add it to your "to read" list for sure. ;)

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  5. Thanks, everybody. :)

    Donna, your experience makes a ton of sense. Had I read it as a child, I think I'd have had a similar thing happen. And yeah, definitely the same scene.

    This being the age of Wikipedia, I only lasted a few minutes before finding out what happened. And I'd definitely like to read Gathering Blue one of these days. :)

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  6. Excellent review per always. But I did read it at the recommended age, and I cried my eyes out. I had never read anything truly unpleasant before being required to read "The Giver", and as I was given no warning as to its unpleasantness, I was thoroughly resentful of it. Even now when I can acknowledge the brilliance of the concept and the writing, I feel a wave of grumpiness about that. Yes, I will read it with my kids when they are at an appropriate level of maturity. But by golly I am going to warn them it isn't Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm!

    This is off-topic, but I saw the most delightful musical adaptation of Anne of Green Gables recently, staged by the local high school, and I wanted to recommend in case you ever have the chance to see it. I was highly skeptical of a musical adaptation, but they managed to capture the charm and sweetness of the books pretty well.

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    1. Sheesh! It's kind of harsh to force that sort of thing down a kid with no warning. I knew what was coming, and it still knocked me flat.

      The Anne musical sounds lovely. I've never seen it, but I'll keep your recommendation in mind in case someone around Bellingham puts it on.

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