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.