This is a blog specifically created for the purposes of my Literature for Children and Young Adults class at Texas Woman's University. Coming soon will be reviews of titles ranging from children's fiction to poetry to young adult novels. Stay tuned.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Giver

Lowry, Lois. 1993. The Giver. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0395645662.

Imagine what it is like to live in a perfect world. One without pain, war, hunger or loss. Jonas, the main character of The Giver, could imagine no other world. That is, until the day he turned twelve. Life in Jonas’ Community is well-structured and immaculately ordered. There is even a time of day for sharing the day’s emotions among one’s family unit—a somewhat “adoptive” family made up of a man and woman who have earned the privilege and who are assigned children with the limit of one boy and one girl. When, on Assignment day, Jonas is passed over, his heart catches in his throat. However, imagine his excitement and then trepidation when he learns that he is to be the Receiver of the Memories, a prestigious but responsibility-laden assignment. While other Twelves of his Community are given fairly mundane trainings to prepare for their eventually permanent roles, Jonas’ is conducted in secret. The reason for that is that as Receiver, he must spend his days with the Giver—who was at his own turn, the Receiver of all the memories of all the events before the establishment of the Community. Now, Jonas must carry the torch. But he soon learns what a painfully heavy burden it is. On the other hand, like Eve eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, the emotions and experiences he has at the hands of the Giver’s memory-pregnant hands, conjures up new ideas and yearnings Jonas has never known. He begins to understand the limitations and hypocrisy of his world and like the Receiver before him who failed, wants to escape. In the end, he does, but is he rewarded for his sacrifice? And the baby he takes with him? Do they survive out in the painful, cold, “real” world? The best way to find out is to read the book.

The beginning of this book is believable. Realistic. We might have been fooled into believing this “community” was some remote, experimental town in some socialistic or communistic country. Up until, that is, Jonas starts to have visions. It is when he begins to see tangible things differently that we understand it is fantasy—about the time the Elders of the community see that Jonas has the faculties it will take to be the Receiver of Memories. Because the setting is so, well, possible and because there are so many things about Jonas to which we can relate as humans, this story hooks us from very early on and keeps us turning the pages throughout. There are so many themes common with our every day life—or that of a young person (fear, yearning for acceptance and reward, socialization, dealing with ridicule or the consequences of our actions, expectations of self and ultimately, our humanity) that we can’t help but become attached to Jonas and to root him on in his plight. The language is vivid and uncorrupted by ego and the story is clear and direct, making this book an easy read without sacrificing intrigue and suspense. It is obvious why it won the 1994 Newbery Medal. It earned it.

The following passage is representative of the voice and tone of the book through its two main characters:

The daily training continued, and now it always included pain. The agony of the fractured leg began to seem no more than a mild discomfort as The Giver led Jonas firmly, little by little, into the deep and terrible suffering of the past. Each time, in his kindness, The Giver ended the afternoon with a color-filled memory of pleasure: a brisk sail on a blue-green lake; a meadow dotted with yellow wildflowers; an orange sunset behind mountains.

It was not enough to assuage the pain that Jonas was beginning, now, to know.

“Why?” Jonas asked him after he had received a torturous memory in which he had been neglected and unfed; the hunger had caused excruciating spasms in his empty, distended stomach. He lay on the bed, aching. “Why do you and I have to hold these memories?”

“It gives us wisdom,” The Giver replied. “Without wisdom, I could not fulfill my function of advising the Committee of Elders when they call upon me.”

“But what wisdom do you get from hunger?” Jonas groaned. His stomach still hurt, though the memory had ended.

“Some years ago,” The Giver told him, “before your birth, a lot of citizens petitioned the Committee of Elders. They wanted to increase the rate of births. They wanted each Birthmother to be assigned four births instead of three, so that the population would increase and there would be more Laborers available.”

Jonas nodded, listening. “That makes sense.”

“The idea was that certain family units could accommodate an additional child.”

Jonas nodded again. “Mine could,” he pointed out. “We have Gabriel this year, and it’s fun, having a third child.”

“The Committee of Elders sought my advice,” The Giver said. “It made sense to them, too, but it was a new idea, and they came to me for wisdom.”

“And you used your memories?”

The Giver said yes. “And the strongest memory that came was hunger. It came from many generations back. Centuries back. The population had gotten so big that hunger was everywhere. Excruciating hunger and starvation. It was followed by warfare.”

Warfare? It was a concept Jonas did not know. But hunger was familiar to him now.

Publisher’s Weekly says, “Lowry is once again in top form—raising many questions while answering few, and unwinding a tale fit for the most adventurous of readers.”

School Library Journal says, “This tightly plotted story and its believable characters will stay with readers for a long time.”

Kirkus Reviews says, “Wrought with admirable skill—the emptiness and menace underlying this Utopia emerge step by inexorable step: a richly provocative novel.”

Horn Book says, “The story is skillfully written; the air of disquiet is delicately insinuated; and the theme of balancing the values of freedom and security is beautifully presented.”

Award: Newbery Medal 1994
This book would be a great one to facilitate discussion on the pros and cons of any society, the definitions of certain terms we take for granted such as freedom or death or illness or aging, and/or a discussion of what happens next—readers could be asked to finish the story using their own imaginations, giving several alternate endings and explaining why they chose what they did.

Review by Joelie Key-Tissot 11/24/06


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