The Giver by Lois Lowry
Published by Laurel Leaf
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
Literary efforts to design an ideal society far predates the development of modern science fiction. Plato's Republic is usually cited as the earliest example, although one can find examples of idealized societies in the traditional literature of many cultures, although with the exception of the final chapter of the Book of Revelation in the Bible, most of these Golden Ages lay in a past that was lost through some error or mischance.
However, as the idea of scientific and technological Progress began to work its way into literature and create the genre that is known as science fiction, literary utopias began to take on an uncomfortable flavor. Maybe those perfect societies not be so perfect as they were cracked up to be? Thus came the rise of the dystopia, utopia's evil twin. Some dystopias, such as George Orwell's 1984, were just plain nasty places to live in, where it seemed that the people running the place took outright relish in kicking and stomping on the hapless populace. Others, such as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, initially presented what appeared to be a happy society where everybody lived comfortably, and then revealed the ugly underbelly of their society, the emptiness of the characters' lives of pleasure and plenty. Even the exuberant dreams of early science fiction got their dystopian take in William Gibson's "The Gernsback Continuum, which points up just how white, male, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, and generally unwelcoming to diversity those early science fiction worlds were.
Lois Lowry's The Giver was the 1994 Newbery Award winner, one of the relatively few works of science fiction for young people to win this prestigious award. (Another was Madeline L'Engle's freshman novel, A Wrinkle in Time, which had originally been panned by reviewers). The Giver introduces us to Jonas, a young man who is on the threshold of an important rite of passage, and is feeling uneasy about it. As he examines his feelings, trying to find the exactly right word to describe them, we get a little insight into his world. We know it isn' a perfect one, because one of the memories he use to contrast a different feeling is the results of someone making a very bad mistake and disrupting their small community. But on the whole it appears to be a very orderly community where people are polite to one another, where every child belongs to a caring family, where life is, on the whole, very comfortable.
But there are the hints for the alert that all is not what it seems. For instance, Jonas' Father is a Nurturer, someone who takes care of newchildren for their first year after they are born. And thus we learn that the family units of this society are artificially created, with children being born in a Birthing Center to women known as Birthmothers who are selected solely for their capacity to carry children to term. Each Birthmother is allowed to have three children, at which time she's turned out to do hard physical labor for the rest of her life. She's not even allowed to see her own children, who are immediately taken to the Nurturing Center to be raised through the most helpless days of infancy, until they're ready to be placed in their family units.
And even more tellingly, one of the newchildren isn't doing well, and they're discussing the possibility that he may be released. We've already heard the term once before, in reference to the Pilot whose navigation error terrorized their little community. At the time it had sounded like nothing more than a pink slip, getting sacked from a responsible job. But in the context of an infant, it starts to get a very sinister overtone, especially when they also are talking about releasing the elderly.
However, it's easy to miss it, especially if one has not read a lot of dystopian literature and aren't familiar with patterns of doublespeak or the Big Lie. Especially since the story is written in tight-third-person point of view and Jonas takes everything for granted as right and proper, the young reader is apt to be carried right along and not feel anything particularly sinister about it, just the sense that it would be very disappointing for this infant to fail, and thus excitement at the possibility that they might be able to get a variance of the normal Nurturing procedures to bring the newchild home to their family unit's dwelling in order to give little Gabriel the best possible start in life.
Similarly, a young reader who isn't well versed in dystopian literature is not apt to notice the stiff formality of their language, the lack of variety and of metaphorical use, and connect it with Orwell's Newspeak, an effort to control thought by restricting language. If anything, the emphasis on precision in language may even seem to be good, because it enables better communication and avoids the misunderstandings that sloppy usage and multiple meanings can bring about.
Over the next several chapters we watch as Jonas goes through several ordinary days, experiencing various aspects of life in his carefully ordered society. All the time anxiety lingers over the situation that seems so superficially calm and orderly, where everybody has a place and is appreciated for it, where misdeeds are dealt with quietly and without the sort of sensationalism that can lead to imitative behavior on the part of people who want attention and don't care about how they get it.
And then comes the big day of the annual rite of passage in which each age cohort of children advances to their new status. Newchildren leave the Nurturing Center to be formally Named and join their family units, thus becoming Ones. The previous year's Ones now become Twos and, having reached that milestone, receive certain new items that mark their status. Each age cohort goes through a similar promotion ritual. For instance, Eights receive a jacket that has pockets, which represents the beginning of personal responsibility for small possessions. Nines receive a bicycle for the first time, giving them greater freedom to move around the community on their own. Tens receive their first adult-style haircut.
Jonas is an Eleven, about to become a Twelve, the last of the childhood age cohorts. At this point children receive their Assignments, the jobs they will be trained to work at as adults. The Elders, the leaders of the community, always make these choices with great care, and although there are stories of people grossly dissatisfied with their Assignments, Jonas and his friends have never seen anyone so disgusted as to actually lodge an appeal. In fact, most young people effectively find their own place in life through their volunteer work that they do once they become Eights, gravitating to something that suits their interests and aptitudes.
But Jonas never has felt drawn to any particular area. He's done his volunteer hours faithfully -- nobody wants to be publicly humiliated by arriving at the ceremony only to be told that they have not satisfactorily completed their hours and will not receive their Assignment with their age-mates -- but he's worked in a wide variety of areas, never finding anything that called to him. As a result, he has no idea what the Elders are apt to decide for him, which makes his wait to be called even more anxiety-provoking.
And then the Chief Elder skips right over him, calling the next new Twelve in line. What could be wrong? Could he have proven unsatisfactory in some way? Is he to be released from the community as a failure and sent Elsewhere?
But no, he is being saved for last. He is not going to be given an ordinary Assignment. Instead, he has been selected for a most special honor, to become the community's new Receiver of Memory. It's a very special duty, a grave responsibility, and the choice is all the more important because ten years earlier their choice for this position proved to be a disastrous failure. The evasive terms that are used in discussing the role of Receiver-of-Memory make Jonas' new posting even more mysterious and disturbing.
So it's hardly surprising that he should be apprehensive when he reports for the beginning of his training as the new Receiver. He's seen the man he is to replace in the role before, but always at a distance, which means that he knows enough to recognize the man on sight, but nothing to give him a sense of who this man is or what working with him will be like. And the sheer mystery that surrounds it, combined with the hush-hush awkwardness about the failure of the previous successor to the post, only adds to that trepidation.
However, the elderly man, who now that he is no longer Receiver asks that Jonas call him the Giver, proves to be kind and gentle. He lives in a tiny apartment filled with intricately carved furniture and shelves full of books, so different from the dwellings that the rest of the community inhabit that for the first time Jonas realizes just how sterile his life has been before this point. The Giver explains something of what they will be doing, and then demonstrates by transferring an ancient memory from before the creation of the modern society, what he calls Sameness -- a memory of snow, and of racing down a hill on a sled.
The science of these memory transfers is left vague. It seems to be some kind of telepathy, perhaps along the lines of some of the theories Apollo astronaut Ed Mitchell has propounded about the quantum hologram. In any case, once the Giver transfers a memory, he no longer possesses it to recall, which means that memories don't act like computer files, in which transferring data is in fact a process of making a copy onto the new medium, but like handing across a physical object.
Over the following months Jonas absorbs both happy and sad memories. At first the unpleasant memories are of mere inconveniences, like the sunburn that comes along with his first introduction to the concept of sunlight. (Apparently the people in this strange future world perceive the sky as a featureless ceiling overhead, rather than seeing the Sun, the Moon, and the various planets and stars of our familiar skies, or presumably the artificial satellites that must be involved in the Weather Control which has eliminated snow from their lives). But as his training progresses, he receives memories of actual pain, of fear, of the sick dread of the doomed. He learns about war, about famine, about the various forms of suffering that can befall human beings.
And the more he learns of the long-ago times before the decision to choose Sameness and give up choice, the more he becomes certain that the community has lost something valuable, that the decision for Sameness was a terrible mistake. At first the Giver asks whether he might be hasty in that judgment, but never tells him he's wrong to think that way. And the further they go in the training, the more Jonas convinces the Giver that the losses are worse than the gains, that it is time for people to have to deal with their own memories and everything that comes with them.
Perhaps it is time for Jonas to leave, to seek that mysterious Elsewhere to which people are sent when they're released. They begin to lay plans for a course of action that will take advantage of the December Ceremony in which age cohorts are promoted. Once he is gone, they hope that the memories will start going back to everybody, and the Giver will be able to guide them in dealing with them on their own.
And then Jonas discovers what "release" really means -- death by lethal injection, which puts a very dark cast upon that memory in the very first scene, and we the readers realize that the Pilot wasn't just sacked, but executed for a dumb mistake. As Jonas watches the critical record of someone he loved and trusted "releasing" an infant, Jonas discovers the hypocrisy of linguistic precision, which is supposed to force everyone to always use exactly the right words so that it becomes impossible to lie. In fact, their whole truth is a lie -- that is, the consensus reality of their community is at variance with observable fact in ways that are concealed through euphemism and self-deception, to the point that seemingly good people can cheerfully do monstrous things and act as though they're performing some harmless or even positive action.
Just as he's trying to assimilate this knowledge, Jonas discovers he doesn't have nearly as much time as he thought, and he will have to flee at once. Complicating matters, he'll have a companion to care for -- he's taking little Gabriel, whose progress was judged unsatisfactory, so that he would be released. Now that Jonas knows exactly what "released" means, he is determined that he will save the child he's come to love.
Through the countryside they ride on a stolen bicycle, passing other communities much like the one they've fled. At first they are able to steal food from agricultural areas and thus sustain themselves, but the farther they press on, the fewer the resources they encounter. Finally they are reduced to desperate and often futile foraging for wild berries and the like.
And then it begins to snow. Here's when things become ambiguous, particularly when one considers that in the earlier parts of the novel "Elsewhere" was in fact a euphemism for death, the grave, whatever vague concept of an afterlife the community may have retained in spite of having attempted to wash their minds of anything but the neat and tidy consensus reality where everything is Stepford-Wives perfect. A lot of readers have understood it to mean that Jonas is hallucinating as he's dying of hypothermia, or that he's actually entering the afterlife, rather than actually crossing a boundary between the communities that chose Sameness and others who didn't, who kept the old ways that Jonas glimpsed in the Giver's memories.
Word of God on this matter is that the author deliberately wrote an ambiguous ending to force readers to reach their own interpretation rather than being told how to understand the book, continuing the theme of the importance of individual choice. At the same time, Ms. Lowry has also said that she does not believe that Jonas and Gabe, are dead, although she has welcomed the ingenuity of various reader interpretations that include such elements (one reader even suggested that the character is a contemporary teen who's dying of hypothermia on a hill and hallucinating the entire story of living in a pretty-seeming dystopia and rescuing a child from euthanasia). She has also written three other books that belong to the same continuity, including references to Jonas and Gabriel that suggest they survived their ordeal and have achieved significant positions in their new home.
The Giver is one of the most frequently challenged YA books of recent years, and the combination of a pretty-seeming dystopia and an ambiguous ending are major factors in it. When it first came out, my mother was a children's librarian at our local library, and she had received some expressions of concern that it was not appropriate for younger readers. She brought it home for us to read, since several members of my family are avid readers of science fiction. Our consensus was that younger readers probably wouldn't have the background and life-experience to understand it without adult guidance, and might take the wrong message from it or have nightmares, but teens probably would have enough background to pick up on the signals that Something Is Very Wrong with the seeming perfection of their society. As a result, it was not removed from the library's collection, but it was moved out of the middle-grade chapter books and put in the teen section.
Review posted February 1, 2013.
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