26 August 2010

book club bloggers - the giver

well, here we are, with my contribution to the first monthly installment of the book club bloggers: lois lowry's young adult novel the giver. be sure to visit the daily snapshot to see what everyone else has to say!

the basic premise of the story is the coming-of-age of a twelve-year-old boy, jonas, in a world that has removed weather variations, color vision, animals, controversy, individuality and self-determination -- as well as any true emotion -- in the consensus that the absence of all these sorts of things brings a simpler, easier, safer life for everyone. at the age of twelve, all children are assigned their adult role in their community and begin the training that moves them beyond childhood to a productive, responsible member of society. jonas receives a special, prestigious assignment that exposes him to the entire human legacy: pain, fury and desperation as well as joy, love and hope. jonas and his mentor make the decision to lead their community away from the sheltered existence they'd known for generations back to the full potential of mankind's experience.

i first read the giver in sixth grade. i don't recall if it was within the school curriculum, or something i read on my own, seeing as i was reading everything and anything that had printed word and stayed still long enough for me to take a look at it. =) i don't remember much of my initial reaction to the book -- i know that i really enjoyed it, and that the idea that "equality doesn't mean everyone is the same" really resonated with me.

reading it again, my reaction has the added depth that ten years' worth of education bring, including having read other political-utopia-focused science fiction (1984, brave new world, and animal farm all come immediately to mind). lumping the giver in with the rest of these works may seem strange, given the very dark nature the adult books possess. however, i think it is just as compelling, and that the lighter tone of the giver makes the sinister nature of the world it describes that much more chilling.

i was also intrigued in this reading to note the ethnocentrism visible in the homology of the community described. if we were to "average" humanity today together into one homologous race we'd be some shade of brown; however, the community only included one non-english name, and jonas had never even heard of a dark-skinned person before inheriting the memories of prior generations. i am pretty confident that this was intentional, as it reinforces the stark contrasts -- or rather, lack thereof -- in the story. i hope also that, as our nation and our experiences become more diverse, the association of social homology with an intrinsically flawed society, however perfect it may appear superficially, will contribute to the development of acceptance and value in our young minds.

speaking of young minds, i certainly believe that this book is a valuable contribution to a 5th or 6th grade classroom. i know it has received controversy, particularly regarding the protagonist's first recognitions of sexual maturation. however, we start teaching public school kids about puberty and their upcoming physiological developments as early as fourth grade (at least, my district did) -- and well we should! to do so without addressing the psychosocial development that they may also experience is a disservice and an incomplete preparation. besides, it's very tastefully handled, and any potentially controversial content -- a discussion of a dream that jonas is confused and uneasy about -- occurs in the initially benign context of the suppressive, rule-abiding community. kids are more likely to glom onto the far more shocking discussions of death and ritualized homicide, which are also presented in an age-appropriate manner. one mention of an incident of adolescent suicide may raise a red flag, but i think presenting this book in an academic setting with a guided discussion to help kids work through these difficult but important concepts would be far "safer," if there is any concern, than banning it, having kids encounter these ideas on their own, and not have an opportunity to process in a productive way.

regarding the ending of the book, i think i always assumed in earlier readings that the boys had died, but hoped that i was wrong. it's a bittersweet but hopeful ending, and just ambiguous enough to allow for several interpretations. when i snagged this from the library i also picked up gathering blue by the same author -- a story of another society, though very different, that has a sinister secret rippling under the surface -- which mentions in passing a youth who may or may not be one of the boys whose fates are uncertain at the end of the giver. i like that (though, honestly, i'm not certain that the two worlds described in those books can exist together), i like the ambiguity. with no concrete ending, this story retains its might-have-been/might-yet-be quality, serving then not just as a novel but also a cautionary tale, and one of hope.

...well, this was fun! what's next?


  1. katie, i'm taking part in the book club bloggers too, so i'm working my way through the different reviews. and yours is soooo good! you very articulately and intelligently described the book and your thoughts on it. i have to admit, i feel a little jealous of this wonderful review, i feel that mine now falls short on all levels :) i find myself agreeing with everything you've written, though i had never even thought of the ending being interpreted as the boys dying! i always just assumed that they made it "Elsewhere." thanks for opening my eyes to that, it's a really interesting interpretation!

  2. I like the comparison to "1984" and "Animal Farm". It doesn't seem like it fits, at first glance, but it is really of the same nature. I like that it can serve as an introduction to those other types of literature. "Fahrenheit 451" and "The Last Book in the Universe" are also good young adult novels, along the same lines as Giver.

    I thought about checking out "Gathering Blue" and "The Messenger", both of which are suppose to take place in Jonah's universe. I think they'd make for an interesting follow-up.

    Thanks for participating!

  3. First of all, great thoughts about the book. Second, I'm loving poking around your blog (loved the med school post - I come from a doctor-heavy family so am all over that!) and will certainly be back. :-)

  4. Liked your review, very thoughtful and from many perspectives.

    When I was in school I have read EVERYTHING, too. Sometimes I think I spent years reading without ever stopping. When my parents forced me to go outside, I would hide a book under my shirts and take it with me to read outside :-)

  5. Love it. By the way, I HATE ambiguity in books. I'm one of those "they all lived happily ever after" people. But this one, is just great.

  6. This is a beautifully written review. Your "years of education" have done you proud.

    I couldn't stand to land on the "boys dying in the end" interpretation, but I certainly see evidence to support that in the text.

    And I completely agree with you, this book is remincient of Brave New World & (I think) The Handmaid's Tale. But didn't consider what you pointed out ~ its tone DOES make Lowry's world even more chilling.

    Now I want to read it again.

  7. Oooh! I loved reading your review! You've hit the nail-on-the-head... We may not want our kids to experience certain unpleasant or uncomfortable things but banning a book that covers those topic tastefully makes no sense as it is the BEST bet that we have at controlling our kids exposure!
    And I totally missed the ethnocentrism (furthering your point I imagine).

    Excellent, excellent thought provoking points you bring up, lady!
    P.S. I just reread my comment... who the heck am I to say, "our kids?!" ha!

  8. So I took FOREVER to comment back to you but YES, we WILL meet someday!

  9. I love this book, and think I have to pick it up again. It's been years.