When we were brainstorming our plans for the final week of our YA Appreciation month, we realized the need to do a second Apocalypse/Dystopia day. And, when looking over what titles we both wanted to read, we decided to go with a classic: The Giver by Lois Lowry. As Ana had not yet read this dystopian classic, she finally decided to take it on. And Thea, who has loved The Giver since meeting the author in middle school, thought this was a very fitting time to give the companion novel Gathering Blue a read. (Note: Neither of us have read the third novel in the loose trilogy, Messenger, but we do plan on reading it soon!)
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Publisher: Laurel Leaf /HarperCollins Children’s Books
Publication Date: September 10, 2002/ 5 May 2008 (First edition was 1994)
Paperback: 192 /240 pages
Summary: Jonas’s world is perfect. Everything is under control. There is no war or fear of pain. There are no choices. Every person is assigned a role in the community. When Jonas turns 12 he is singled out to receive special training from The Giver. The Giver alone holds the memories of the true pain and pleasure of life. Now, it is time for Jonas to receive the truth. There is no turning back.
With the YA Dystopia Day approaching, I had to pick one book to read and The Giver was the natural choice especially because Thea has been talking about it ever since I met her. I opened the book and read it under 3 hours and had the most visceral reaction to it in what I can only describe as an incredibly disturbing experience.
The Giver is the story of Jonas, our third person narrator. He is an 11 year old boy, one of the inhabitants of the Community. At first glance, the Community is a perfect place to live: set in some point in an undisclosed future, where life is well- balanced, everybody has everything they need to survive, everybody has a role in the society and there is no war, no pain, no suffering.
As Jonas narrates his life under the Sameness, the Utopia created a long time ago by his ancestors comes into close scrutiny for the benefit of the reader. How his life is dictated by the community and he has a daily routine. How he lives in a family Unit with his Mother and his Father and his Sister and every morning they have the sharing of the dreams they had the night before. Members of the community do not lie, do not ask each other questions that could be seen as intrusive, do not feel pain or confusion and Jonas lives his life in accordance with all that; and as an Eleven, he is preparing for the Ceremony of the Twelve when he will learn what his role in society will be and to his surprise, he is chosen to be the new Receiver of Memories.
These first few chapters, almost half of the book could be seen as a horrendous glimpse into a kind of controlled Big Brother society. But. Here is the twist: Jonas, as everybody else in the Community is perfectly content. He has time to play with his friends, he has FUN, his family may not be loving per se, but Mother and Father are nice, supportive people and Jonas’ sister is an adorable kid. This sense of contentment comes mostly from the fact that the Elders go at great lengths to assign people’s roles in lives according to what they are good at. Take Jonas’ best friend for example: a boy who always liked playing and who has an enduring sense of humour, hence he is allocated to be part of the department of Recreation, a perfect, agreeable fit that makes him content. Similarly, Jonas’ Father is a Nurturer, working with the Birthmothers and the children that are born in the Community. Everybody fits. Those who don’t are allowed to ask to be released Elsewhere – and they are granted their wish every time. The Release also happens when an Old Person reaches a certain age and the ceremony is one of great pomp and circumstance and a celebration of the life of the person who is leaving.
I was overwhelmed with angst as I read The Giver – even those similarly perfect first chapters made me feel inexplicably sad. Up until the moment when Jonas starts to receive his training as the Receiver, The Giver is about an Utopia, an ideal society and only I, as a reader KNOW what these people don’t have: deeply felt Emotion (note how only words such as “content”, “nice”, “agreeable” have been used so far). Choice.
Then Jonas receives his Receiver folder, with a set of 7 rules about what happens next, a folder that everybody receives once they start their training and here is the first inkling that something is not quite right: rule number 7 decrees that Jonas, can now….lie. He wonders if he can lie, can anybody else?
Then he starts his sessions with the Giver. He was told, when he was allocated this role, that it was a role that required great courage because his training would bring him great pain. And so it does. Because the Giver has the role to be the sole person to sustain every single collective memory of the Community’s past.
Every.single.one. Of snow and sunshine (the Community is a weather controlled environment) ; of hills and beaches (The Community is geographically perfect); of colour (the Sameness has genetically modified people to not see colours) ; of bad things too – the bad things the Community tries to avoid: war, famine, pain, death. But also, in the name of Sameness, in the name of leaving out the negative , all of the positive, great things and feelings that make life worth living are excluded as well: Family. Sex.Devotion. Love. Behold the bleakness of Jonas world and he asks his Father a question, prompted by the memory of a Family Christmas:
“Do you love me?”
There was an awkward silence for a moment. Then Father gave a little chuckle. “Jonas. You, of all people. Precision of language, please!”
“What do you mean?” Jonas asked. Amusement was not at all what he had anticipated.
“Your father means that you used a very generalised word, so meaningless that it’s become almost obsolete,” his mother explained carefully.
Jonas stared at them. Meaningless? He had never before felt anything as meaningful as the memory.
“And of course our community can’t function smoothly if people don’t use precise language. You could ask, “Do you enjoy me?’ The answer is ‘yes’,” his Mother said.
“Or”, his Father suggested, “Do you take pride in my accomplishments?’ And the answer is wholeheartedly ‘Yes’.”
“Do you understand why it’s inappropriate to use a word like ‘love’?” Mother asked.
Jonas nodded. “Yes, thank you, I do,” he replied slowly.
It was his first lie to this parents.
Then it hits me that the angst and sadness that I inexplicably felt up until that point were merely an intuitively build-up of emotions because it is clear that the book was going towards one direction: to the point where the Giver gives all these memories to Jonas. And there is pain. Physical pain. But the greatest pain is the emotional one of knowing what they have been missing; and he continues his training for one year until it becomes utterly, completely unbearable.
For me as a reader as well – because part of me wondered.
Wondered if it was FAIR that the Giver and Jonas would want to destroy the Community when they are only two people, and the rest of them are so content. But just then there comes the horror: one scene, one scene where we and Jonas realise what the Release was all about and wonder I did no more.
Because as Thea would argue: an Utopia is always someone’s Dystopia and when it comes at the cost of lives of people that don’t fit an imposed mould then change is always a good thing.
The Giver was a great read and I had an intellectual rapport with the book that lasted for days. I reflected about the close relationship between memory and emotion, about the needs of the collective and the needs of the individual. About Utopias and Dystopias. About the future and the past. In that sense, the book is very effective in engaging my brain, raising questions that are difficult to answer but needed to be asked. It invites discussion and it begs to be heard.
However, for all that there is good in The Giver, the reader in me felt strangely disappointed. I was never close enough to Jonas to care as much as I felt I needed to. I think the overall story may have overshadowed the characters which is an incredible irony taking into consideration the theme of the novel. I also find myself unable to let go of some of the questions I had that were never truly answered: for example, how exactly does one transfer a memory? And why would the Giver lose it completely once it was done? How were genetic engineers able to remove colours? And why were the role of Birthmothers looked down when they were the sole responsible for continuing the race?
I think this is a great book – a great, well- written book for children and adults because it makes one think and wonder. I am not so sure that as a fiction novel it survives close scrutiny of plot specifics. But maybe that is not really the point.
Rating: 8 – Excellent
Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin (original) / Random House (reprint)
Publication Date: September 2000
Paperback: 224 pages
Summary: (from Amazon.com)
Kira, an orphan with a twisted leg, lives in a world where the weak are cast aside. She fears for her future until she is spared by the all-powerful Council of Guardians. Kira is a gifted weaver and is given a task that no other community member can do. While her talent keeps her alive and brings certain privileges, Kira soon realizes she is surrounded by many mysteries and secrets. No one must know of her plans to uncover the truth about her world and see what places exist beyond.
In 1996, Lois Lowry came to visit my middle school in Jakarta. For a few glorious days, we got to hear Ms. Lowry read passages from her books, talk about her work, and we were able to ask her questions. As a sixth grader, I loved her books Number the Stars and A Summer to Die especially, but my favorite novel was always The Giver. And, when we were able to ask her about the ending of the novel (which could be interpreted in a few ways), I remember Ms. Lowry saying that she wanted to keep it ambiguous.
Fastforward to 2000 and 2004, and two sequels/companion novels were written. I held off on reading Gathering Blue for a long time because I was scared that there was no way either book could live up to The Giver…but then YA Appreciation Month rolled around, and perfect excuse-thwarter it is, I finally had the opportunity to force myself to read and review this second book. So, it was with some trepidation (or rather, Anxiety, as Jonas would say) that I started Gathering Blue…
And I loved it.
Gathering Blue is the story of Kira, a newly orphaned young woman after her mother falls to the mysterious illness that periodically claims lives of the village. Kira’s world is nothing like Jonas’s safe, high-technology, compartmentalized and organized society. In Kira’s village, only the strong and ruthless survive and Kira, without her mother’s protection and her father long dead from a beast attack in the surrounding woods, is completely on her own. Her future in the village is a perilous one, for she was born with a twisted leg and cannot walk without the aid of a staff, nor can she work fields or be desired as a wife with her physical defect. But Kira, saved from being killed at birth by her mother’s will, has a saving grace – she has a magical ability to weave. After her mother’s death, she is saved from banishment by Jamison, one of the village elders who speaks in her defense. For Jamison has a special task that only Kira can accomplish – the weave of the Story Singer’s ceremonial robe that vividly depicts the history of the world and its demise. For years, Kira has watched her mother make repairs to the robe with awe, and she has now inherited that role and more; her new task is to not only repair the robe, but to complete the weave at its end. But then Kira discovers that she is not the only one Jamison has singled out from the village – there’s Thomas, as gifted with wood carving as Kira is with weaving. But there’s also the mysterious crying coming from beneath their rooms. And, as Kira learns more about dyes from an old woman on the outskirts of the village, she also learns that the council has some very large secrets that could change her view of the world forever.
I really had no idea what to expect with Gathering Blue. It’s completely different than The Giver, following an unrelated character in a completely different environment. While Jonas’s story is set in the Community with a distinctively Big Brother type of feel, Kira’s village is in a low-technology, almost medieval-style village in the tradition of Obernewtyn. But for the differences in characters and style, both books are connected by the same theme – two young adults, with traces of magical abilities, fighting to discover the truth that their dystopian societies do not want them to know. And, I can honestly say that Kira is a worthy counterpart to Jonas in every way. I love it when authors take chances with their protagonists, writing them as less than perfect or not perfectly beautiful/strong/brave. In Kira’s case, her twisted leg is a handicap that puts her in a very dangerous spot with the villagers and also prevents her from any daredevil escapes – but it also allows a different strength to develop in her as a character:
Her stick thumped on the wooden floor and the foot of her flawed leg brushed the boards with a sweeping sound, as if she dragged a broom.
“Take pride in your pain,” her mother had always told her. “You are stronger than those who have none.”
Like Jonas, Kira has an older mentor who teaches her the craft she needs to continue her work for the good of the village – and as with The Giver, Annabella, Kira’s mentor, knows much more about the village than anyone else does. And again, the most important similarity between these two protagonists is their decision to discover the truth, and to inspire change. Though Gathering Blue doesn’t ask the same questions that The Giver provokes concerning what makes a society ideal (for Kira’s world is far worse off than Jonas’s community of comfortable ignorance), it does tell a powerful story with strong characters. In addition to Kira, Thomas the woodcarver is a fantastic addition, though the scene stealer has to be Matt – the ragabond youngling that helps Kira in many ways, and central character of the next book.
Gathering Blue is a perfect companion novel to The Giver in every way, even mentioning what I suspect is an allusion to Jonas in the final pages. Now, to give Messenger a try, uniting all the characters from both books in a grand finale!
Rating: 7 Very Good