Sunday, August 25, 2013

Book Review: "The Giver" by Lois Lowry

Before today, I had never read this book. Apparently, it's quite popular on reading lists, but I was never required to read it when I was younger. I think I turned out just fine, however, I'm really glad to have read The Giver as an adult.

I watched an interview with Lois Lowry after finishing the book in one afternoon sitting. In the interview, Lowry discusses the perplexing fact that since the book was published in 1993 it has been listed on the nation's "most challenged" book list. People challenge the book's inclusion in schools and in public libraries. I didn't know this fact while reading the book, but I can understand why this book causes people to feel ill at ease.

The story begins with Jonas facing the prospect of an impending Ceremony in his Community that will set him on his path toward adulthood. The Ceremony will announce what occupation he will be trained for and work at for the duration of his adult life. This decision is based upon years of meticulous observation. During this time of Jonas' introspection, the reader learns that this Community is different. We are led to assume that the story takes place in the future in a society that has been structured to secure peace and safety. In order to secure peace and safety the Community has elected transformation into Sameness.

To achieve this Sameness there is much sacrifice that no members of the Community are aware of, with the exception of one Community member: The Memory Receiver. And at the ceremony, Jonas is chosen to become the next Receiver. This is the most honored position within their Community. This transforms the current Receiver's role into The Giver. The Giver lays hands on Jonas and transfers to him memories that reach back through time to a world very different from their own. The world that Jonas learns about is full of color, joy, love, pain and great great suffering. But at least in this world there is feeling - something the current Community believes themselves to be in complete control of as they confess all of their thoughts and surface emotions. Jonas learns that feelings are deep and complex and stem from exposure to different experiences, which is foreign to the Sameness and routine of the highly controlled Community.

I became very emotional when Jonas receives the memory of Love. The memory takes place at Christmas time and generations of one family are all gathered around the decorated tree exchanging gifts. In the Community, babies are separated from their birth parents, raised by adoptive parents, and when they leave their adoptive parents' home their parents are relocated to live among the Childless Adult community before retiring to the House of the Old. So there is something innately lacking in the family unit, an incompleteness that Jonas becomes aware of with this receipt of this memory. I love Christmas, and my favorite part of the holiday tradition is the tree and the gathering of family, so this scene pulled at my heart strings and then came the tears. It was a touching scene to read and the fact that Jonas learned so much from the experience seemed fitting. It is the experience and knowledge of this love that propels much of Jonas' future decision making.

I guess I would say love and freedom of choice are the two values for which Jonas decides to live his life in pursuit of changing the Community's exclusion of these essential pillars of the human condition. The very sci-fi or magical (depending on the reader) aspect of the transfer of memories from the Giver to the Receiver is very interesting. Within the Community and its assigned societal roles the Memory Receiver is the only one in possession of all the positive and negative truths of human history. It is for that one individual to carry that singular burden of knowledge and experience (I am reminded of Emerson here). The Receiver is honored within the Community and they are considered wise. When the Council of Elders encounters a situation within their generation that they have never come across they consult the Receiver who then draws upon the past to determine the best course of action going forward in order to preserve the structure of the Community. The people of the Community are protected from the weight of knowing such horrible truths of human life like loss, pain and suffering, but in exchange they are also kept ignorant of all the beauty, love and feelings of connection because they have no concept of war, murder, love, power, creativity, expression, etc.

The magical, and rather unexplained element of the story that never quite connected for me was how the memories the Receiver was in possession of return to the Community when the Receiver is released (dies) or leaves the Community. I never felt satisfied by the kind of vague transference that occurs. But apparently when the Receiver dies or leaves (as Jonas does) the memories return to the Community members. All of the things they have kept themselves from knowing by the very structure of their society comes swarming back to them. The potential here is for utter chaos to erupt within the Community with the return of such feeling.

There was also some indications and context clues referencing cloning which interested me. Considering everything was done to control population and make sure everything was sustainable I found the recycling of names, mention of geneticists, and Jonas' sister's story about people in other Communities looking just like them but living by different rules to be an interesting inclusion by the author. Perhaps it was just to bait the reader into arriving at a particular conclusion other than the one provided by the book to keep the anticipation elevated, or perhaps it was to leave it lingering in the mind of a reader (like it is in mine) as a possible part of the bigger story of how the Community came to be (which is never fully addressed).

The ending of The Giver is incredibly ambiguous. The Giver and Jonas cook up a plan and Jonas decides to leave the Community to save a young child who is slated for "release" (the cold death rationalized by the Community as necessary and therefore emotionlessly carried out). As Jonas suffers through starvation and a battle against environmental factors that would never had been an issue if he had stayed within the Community, his desire to change the world he knew is what drives him. For although he is starving, he knows that if he had stayed he would have been starving for color, for love, for connection that his life would have been utterly devoid of had he stayed. He would have lived in seclusion, bearing the weight of enormous and horrible knowledge for sustaining a Community he found cruel and inhuman.

In the last chapters the power of humanity triumphs over technology, and the depth of love triumphs over cold rationale. But in the final scene we are left to wonder if Jonas is given over to hallucinations just before death from winter elements, or if he is truly stumbling upon a new civilization after his travels. The reader is left to choose which ending they want. One could interpret the ending as pessimistic in that even though Jonas sacrifices himself he doesn't achieve his goal of changing the Community and returning to them all the memories he possesses. Or one could find the value in Jonas' sacrifice as a message to humanity as a whole: that the values Jonas aims to preserve - freedom and love - are the very essence of what is worth dying for and living for.

When I closed the book, uncertain of my reaction to the end, I took to the internet. This is where I discovered, as mentioned previously, that this book has remained on the list for most challenged works of literature in the public sphere. Lois Lowry, in an interview on YouTube I watched, didn't seem to understand why, but I think I do. When looking around at what is happening right now - the willing sacrifice of civil liberties for the sake of security - a book like this becomes dangerous.

This is a story that rallies against the sacrifice of freedom for the sake of sameness and peaceful control. Freedom and choice propel a boy of only twelve to sacrifice his life in an effort to return this right to his people. Love, which breaks down universal boundaries and exists as a  language in the way that mathematics does, is something worth dying for in order to preserve. This book is saying that the sacrifice of the individual self for the greater good is both good and bad depending on what is on the line. Is the greater good a society that has lost its humanity, sacrificing freedom for security? This is juxtaposed by Jonas sacrificing himself for the greater good of returning lost humanity to his Community.

This book is challenged in the social consciousness because it challenges the very conflict that exists within our society, and increasingly in our global community. You cannot control people if they are all different. It is the Sameness that allows for control. It is the sacrifice of individualism that allows control. And finally, the access to knowledge and history should remain a public privilege. Tampering with the controls of access to history and knowledge, specifically in the form of books (which everyone in the Community is foreign to with the exception of the Receiver) is a sign of a controlled population. Who controls our information? Who writes our history books? Is our information pure or is it convoluted and manipulated to control the population? This book is challenged because in one afternoon's reading I was able to formulate these questions and answer them within my frame of reference: The United States of America, 2013.

(As an end note: I read an additional interview in which Lois Lowry says that the character of Jonas is picked up in another book, The Messenger, and it is seven years later in his life. She qualifies this by saying this is "her version" of what happens after the ambiguous ending of The Giver, but it doesn't have to be the reader's.)


  1. I really will have to put this on my re-read list and read the sequel. I'm wondering now what religious tradition Lowry came from. Some of the themes seem very Catholic to me.

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