A Childhood Book, But Does It Work?: The Giver

giverAt the behest of my wife, I finally picked up Lois Lowry’s The Giver, a novel she has very clear memories of reading as a kid in school. I was not sure what to expect but was pleasantly surprised by the utopian/dystopian setting of the novel and the deceptively simple language of the book. However, I am not entirely sure what to do with the novel now that I am done.

Simply put, The Giver concerns a seemingly-utopian society where no one feels pain, difference, trouble, or anxiety of any form. Social life is carefully controlled and no one is faced with the problem of making a choice. Jonas, the protagonist, is assigned the role of Receiver of Memories when he turns Twelve (I am not sure if this is meant to be a grade or his actual age) while his friends Asher and Fiona receive their roles of Assistant Director of Recreation and Caretaker of the Old. Jonas’s role is surprising because it is very rarely given and, as he learns, the previous child chosen for the role failed. Jonas soon finds out that his new job is to be the bearer of the whole community’s memory as Lowry slowly reveals that all of the citizens of the quiet town have no real sense of memory, perception, or emotion. Long ago in the community’s history, the leaders chose Sameness over difference and it has been carefully enforced at every level since then.

This is the change from utopia to dystopia that I alluded to earlier. Predictably, Jonas soon dreams of escaping and the final quarter of the novel concerns his attempt to do so. I say predictably because this is a novel aimed at young readers, and without a hero, it would not really fly. I guess this is where The Giver started to lose some of its momentum for me. The ending seemed hurried and rushed. I won’t spoil it here, but it lost some of its plausibility. I also wanted more detail as Lowry gets surprisingly vague about geography and the mechanics of the dystopian society late in the book. I guess that children’s novels tend to shy away from heavy details or politics, but given the genre I felt that something went missing through this omission. In a way, The Giver reads like a less-realized version of Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”. The Giver did not have the depth of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time nor the action of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. These comparisons seem unfair on some level, but I am not sure that dumbing down content for younger readers is necessarily a wise choice. Part of the enjoyment of reading is being challenged and I, overlooking the fact that I am a late-20s PhD Candidate in English, found The Giver lacking in this regard.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read that might satisfy fans of young adult fiction but will leave lovers of dystopia wanting more.

Lowry, Lois. The Giver. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993. Print.


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