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The Giver by Lois Lowry
Published by Laurel Leaf
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
The Giver by Lois Lowry is the 1994 Newbery Award book. It takes place in a society where everyone is kind to each other, nobody is ever unhappy, and families are warm and nurturant places. But there are dark and ugly secrets underlying this pleasant world.
Everything is rigidly controlled and people have no choices. Clothes are uniforms designed according to age and in adulthood occupation. Occupations are chosen by the Elders of the community according to the young person's perceived talents. Birthmothers, who actually give birth to the children, do not get to see them after their birth, because the children are taken away to be raised by others. After three births, the Birthmothers are turned out as Laborers to do heavy manual labor for the rest of their lives and are not permitted to form a family unit or raise children.
Children three years old are punished with a discipline wand for making mistakes in their speech. And when one gets the idea that "release" means death, one comes to the horrifying realization that people are put to death for not fitting in, or making dumb mistakes, or otherwise not being what they should be. And the fate of the young Pilot-in-training that was referred to in the opening chapter takes on a special horror -- he was executed just for making a dumb but honest mistake.
Jonas, the main character of the book, is able to transcend the limits of his velvet cage because he is selected to be the community's new Receiver of Memory. He goes to the old man who formerly held this position and receives the memories through telepathic transfer. These include horrible memories of wars, of pain, of grief.
But they also include happy memories of love and joy. The old man, the Giver, tells him that all those things were put away when the people chose to pursue Sameness in order to create a perfect society. Even such things as colors and music have been lost (apparently the people's minds are conditioned not to see colors) in order to create this perfectly regulated society.
Eventually Jonas and the Giver come to the conclusion that too much has been lost, that the price of the comfort that Sameness gives is too high and the people have become empty. When Jonas discovers the full ugly meaning of just what "release" is by seeing a vid of his father releasing a twin (who couldn't be allowed to live because only one child was planned for that birth) by lethal injection, he decides that he has to take action.
At the same time Gabriel, the small child whom he had been helping with, is scheduled for "release." Jonas decides to take Gabriel and flee beyond the pleasant communities of Sameness in search for the Elsewhere that is supposed to be filled with perfect bliss and maybe even freedom. They also hope that as he leaves the community he will leave the absorbed memories behind so that the people will have to deal with them and learn to think for themselves.
Jonas steals his father's bicycle, which has a child carrier, and takes Gabriel away. His journey takes him beyond the pleasant cultivated areas and into hills. He finds that it is snowing, and finally finds a sled that takes him and Gabriel down the hill and to the homes of people who still remember, who still celebrate genuine emotions and who still have real lives instead of pretty but empty existances.
However the way it is written, Jonas may have actually died or be hallucinating the whole thing as he is dying. The ending is actually rather ambiguous, since we never actually get to see him meeting the people of the "wilds," but probably most kids who read it will conclude that he did and that the story ends happily.
This novel does hit at a bunch of assumptions our culture makes. For instance, the "drug culture" assumption that pills can solve all our problems -- whenever they have any pain they take a pill to get rid of it, and they even take pills to keep themselves from having sexuality, which they call "Stirrings." And the assumption that everything needs to be controlled, that any risk is too much (I've seen a number of incidents where people who talk about acceptable risk are regarded as though they have no regard for human life).
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Review posted December 16, 1998
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