Friday, July 8, 2016

I finally discover the Giver

The Giver came out in 1993, which meant that it came out at the perfect time for me to miss it. I was in college and, while I was reading a lot of stuff and discovering a lot of books and authors, young adult literature was not on my radar.

In fact, I only learned about the Giver by Lois Lowry when I was reading about dystopias and learned that it is considered a major work and one that helped develop dystopias as a young adult genre. I also learned it's considered a classic and is taught in many schools.

Two days after I learned it existed, I finished reading it. To be fair, it's a really short read.

In order to talk about my impressions of it, I'm going to have to spoil some major events in the book. So, I suggest going off and reading the book before going any further. Seriously, it won't take long.

Seriously, spoilers ahead....

The Giver appears to be set in a bland, happy little utopia where everyone is well fed, happy and kept in their place. Of course, it's pretty obvious that things are so strict that there is no freedom of choice whatsoever. Plus, undesirables of every stripe get 'released to elsewhere', which is so blatant a euphemism for death that I wondered how Lowry was going to get any mileage out of that revelation at all.

The protagonist, Jonas, gets tagged to be the community's next receiver. Somehow, all of the knowledge of the past, every memory, gets syphoned into one person and contained. Everyone else gets to float around in a dull, brainwashed bliss, unable to even understand the past or what it meant.

Lowry is probably wise not worry about the mechanics of how this works. For Jonas and the readers, all that matters is that it does. One interesting point is this brainwashing causes everyone to be completely color blind. Well, interesting for me since I am colorblind.

So the whole system is built on one person being a scapegoat, holding onto all of the pain of history and memory so everyone else can be oblivious. Congratulations, this is a novel-length examination of Ursula K. LeGuin's Those Who Walk Away From Omelas, which was inspired by Dostoyevsky.

Massive spoiler ahead... You have been warned....

The book is clearly building up to a climactic revelation of Jonas figuring out that 'released to elsewhere' means killing folks. Like I said, that was pretty obvious from the first chapter so I wasn't sure how that  would have any emotional impact.

Lowry does it by having Jonas watch his dad euthanize an infant for the sin of being a twin which would disrupt the status quo. While cooing and babbling to the child in baby talk. That last part took a clinical description and made it an emotional gut shot.

Reading it as a dad probably made it even more horrible. Hurting and killing kids can seem like a cheap shot and an easy way to get a reaction. But I see it in the news every night and that's not fiction.

And the Giver is trying to say something about the value  freedom and the power of choice and the weight of memory. It is a book designed to upset a classroom full of kids and make them argue about morality. (A line I stole from LeGuin, to give credit where it's due)

In the end, Jonas flees the community, taking with him their protection from memories. They will come back to them, although we don't get to see it. Instead, we follow Jonas and an infant/toddler he saves from being euthanized as they flee to the wilderness, either to find other people or die of hypothermia thinking they found people.

Apparently later books assure us that they did survive but, boy, did it read like hallucinations while freezing to death to me.

The Giver shows us a setting that seems safe and pleasant to live in. But it's a setting that puts no value on individual life, in particular, the lives of children. And the safety is a lie. Step out of the bounds of society and you will die and quickly.

Considering that the dystopia genre tends to be an action-filled one, the Giver is a very quiet, calm book. The big moments are Jonas watching a video of his dad and him sneaking out with a toddler to quietly bike out of town. However, these scenes hammer home the very simple and important points of the book:

Choices matter. Children matter.

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