The Giver, by Lois Lowry, is another one of the famous Newbery winners that I managed to miss reading in elementary school (along with Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and Island of the Blue Dolphins), although this time I don’t have to take the blame: The Giver was written in 1993, three years after I graduated from high school. Fifteen years later, it’s a classic, and I decided to find out why.
Jonas, an Eleven, lives in a future where everyone is well taken care of. He lives with his parents (not his birth-parents; each person is assigned a spouse, and then, when they apply, a male and female child), and he goes to school with his Eleven friends. He does volunteer work at the House of the Old, and his father’s job (jobs are also assigned, when you become a Twelve) is to be a Nurturer with the newchildren. Rules and regulations add orderliness and safety to life; rituals, like the ceremony of Release with which an old person ends his time in the community and goes Elsewhere, add softness and pleasure.
Then suddenly the pattern of Jonas’s life is disturbed. On the day he becomes a Twelve, he is chosen, not for an ordinary job such as his friends have, but for the highest honor of all: to be the new Receiver of Memory. He learns that the current Receiver, who bears all the memories of the community, is old and tired, and needs to pass them on. In this way, Jonas learns about things he never knew existed: from snow (his community controls the climate) to birthday parties (his community does not single children out; everyone celebrates on the same day) to warfare and hunger. He learns that, despite his community’s insistence on precision of language, some of the words they use are meant to cloud meaning. And he learns that love is worth risking everything for.
I expected to enjoy this book, but it was even better than I expected it to be. Jonas was a completely engaging hero, and his world was fascinating. I love dystopian fiction when it’s done well, and Lowry did a wonderful job of putting an innocent gloss on terrible events, so that they seemed natural to Jonas but felt like a kick in the gut to the reader. In fact, I wanted more detail. I would really have liked to know how the adults felt about some of what went on in the society, and I kept imagining an adult novel, written, say, from Jonas’s mother’s perspective, maybe in diary format. The lack of prestige of birthmothers, for instance, was so close to what happened in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale that I wondered if Lowry was making a reference to it, and there were a number of other things I wanted to know more about. My understanding is that there are two companion novels to this one (Gathering Blue and Messenger) and I plan to put them on my TBR list. The Giver was so well worth reading that I can’t wait to see what’s next.