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The Giver, by Lois Lowry
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Laurel Leaf
Published: 2002
Review Posted: 8/8/2009
Reviewer Rating:
Reader Rating: 8 out of 10

The Giver, by Lois Lowry

Book Review by Mike Swope

Have you read this book?

In The Giver, Lois Lowry's Newbery-award winning novel set in an alternative future at an unknown date, a young boy named Jonas comes of age to be selected to be the next Receiver of Memory during an annual ceremony in which all 12-year-old boys and girls are given their life-long Assignments, more familiar to us as careers. Jonas soon meets the Giver and his understanding of the very foundations of his world crumbles as he begins to receive memories of experiences long forgotten by his community, memories such as snow, sledding, sailing, war, love, Christmas and more. The Giver shares themes with other classic or well-known dystopian tales, and like these same classics, The Giver also has its anti-hero, its runner.

This Ceremony of Twelve occurs at the midpoint of the book, however. The first few chapters up to the Ceremony introduce readers to Jonas, his family, his friends, their roles, the way their future/alternative community functions and administers its laws. At first, this world seems idyllic. The family eats breakfast and dinner at the table every night and discusses their feelings, the dreams they have had the night before, the things and thoughts that cause them pause or burden them. Everyone either goes to school or to his/her Assignment every day. Everyone is cared for, even the newchildren and the elderly, which are cared in facilities like hospitals and group homes respectively. The elderly only await their Release. For Christians, this setting is ideal; after all, a strong society is based on strong families.What more could anyone ask for?

This world, however, is anything but idyllic, Jonas soon learns as he begins to receive the collective memories of the community. These memories are stored within the mind of The Giver of Memory, until they have all been imparted, at which time Jonas will take his place and become the next Giver of Memory, the only person who advises the Committee of Elders so the Committee can make informed decisions when necessity eclipses their own personal limited experiences. Once all the memories are given to Jonas, the elderly Giver will then be Released. Jonas learns, as do readers, that the families in his world are not biological families, and his world has been stripped of the pain and joy of the human experience and the freedom to choose one's fate. Jonas' world is sterile, wrought with Sameness.

Both Jonas and readers begin to understand, as Jonas gains wisdom through the memories given to him, that their community functions but is missing those things that make each human life unique and interesting. Through these memories, Jonas learns about the joy of sledding, the pleasure of snow, the pain of frostbite and broken bones, the comfort of biological families, the experience of longing and love, and more. After receiving the memory of a war-torn battlefield, Jonas witnesses his friends playing a game of war, and Jonas frantically tries to stop them because they do not understand the horror of the battlefield, but they are confused and perhaps horrified by Jonas' response. It is at this point that Jonas and the reader realizes the gulf which has suddenly appeared between him and his friends because of his new consciousness.

This gulf only widens as more memories are transferred to Jonas. Jonas and readers learn that memories are more objects than individual memories. If a receiver's memories are released, by death or distance, they don't go back to the Giver, they go to where memories existed before Receivers, and every person in the community experiences them. Just such an event occurred 10 years before and caused great burden and pain for every member of the community when a Receiver asked for Release and administered the injection herself. Incidentally, this Receiver, Jonas and the reader learn, was the daughter of the Giver, though no one, so far as Jonas understands, is supposed to know either of their birth parents in this society.

Family does not have the traditional importance in this book as it does for Western society. A family in this book is an assigned unit. No one in the family is biologically related. Children are taken from birth mothers immediately after birth and nurtured until they are ready to be given to a family unit. A family unit can have no more than two children. People must apply for a wife or husband, and for children as well. As Christian religions today believe that family is the most important foundation for a healthy society, the dissolution of the traditional family means much in this book to readers from cultures like our own.

More epiphanies await Jonas throughout the book. For example, he learns as a child that he must not lie; but on his short list of instructions as Receiver, he is told he can now lie. At first he thinks this sets him apart, although he cannot imagine why he may need to tell a lie. But then he realizes that perhaps, upon becoming Twelves, everyone is told they can lie, which immediately calls every adult he has ever known into question. If everyone is lying, what are they lying about, and who is telling the truth? What is the truth? Perceptive readers will understand how this small realization further challenges the foundations of Jonas' community.

By the end of the book, Jonas has discovered that his society has created a community without human feeling. The word "love" for the community is imprecise and questions about it should be phrased in language such as "Do you enjoy me?" or "Do you take pride in my accomplishments?" The word "love," his mother tells him near the end of the book, has become almost obsolete. Love, readers will do well to remember, is another Christian value.

As with other classic dystopian stories, The Giver also has a runner, its anti-hero who at all cost and through his own sacrifice, tries to free the community from its contrived laws and traditions.

In the last quarter of the book, Jonas and the Giver contrive a plan to force the others in the community to bear the burden of the memories Jonas is holding for them, to try to change the community. If Jonas can escape the community into Elsewhere, a vague undisclosed place at some distance from the community, the memories given to Jonas will be returned to the people once he is far enough away. The Giver, however, chooses to stay behind to help the people cope with the new, overpowering memories and the uncertainty, fear, pain, joy and social unrest they are sure to create.

The Giver's last pages, however, are ambiguous and unsatisfying. Having taken Gabriel, a newchild Jonas has come to comfort and love, Jonas' escape is uneventful, hiding by day and traveling by night. In his haste to escape with Gabe, Jonas is ill-prepared. After the planes have stopped flying over, and the road grows narrow and too bumpy for his bicycle, Jonas realizes they will soon starve if they do not find help in Elsewhere. Soon it begins to snow, and Jonas and Gabe, weak and weary from their escape, find themselves at the top of a hill with a sled, identical to the first memory the Giver gave to Jonas, and the memory fills Jonas with joy. It is downhill now, and as the sled slides through the snow, he sees lights at the bottom and thinks he hears music and people singing. It is too coincidental to be the same hill and sled in that first imparted memory; it is like a dream. Unfortunately, the ambiguity of this dream-like ending will frustrate some readers who desire confirmation that Jonas either has or has not reached Elsewhere and will be saved, and the memories he carries returned to the body of the community, forcing change.

Several themes in The Giver are reminiscent of earlier dystopian stories, including George Orwell's 1984 (1949), Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953), and William Nolan and George Clayton Johnson's Logan's Run (1967, film 1976). Like Big Brother in Orwell's 1984, The Giver's society also has a system of constant surveillance. Early in the book, Jonas takes an apple from a recreation area, and a public announcement made by community loud speaker immediately reminds Male Elevens (Jonas being not yet 12) that "objects are not to be removed from the recreation area and that snacks are to be eaten, not hoarded." Of course, the message was specifically directed at Jonas, though Jonas' name was not mentioned. There are several other instances in the book when similar announcements are made when minor rules are broken by the characters.

The civilization described in The Giver also reminds readers of Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 in that books are not available to the public. Books are burned by firemen in Fahrenheit 451, but in The Giver, the roles of Giver and Receiver of Memories would not be necessary if books were readily available for citizens to read. The books would safely hold the memories for all time or any one who wanted to read them. At one point, it is mentioned that Jonas and The Giver, due to their Assignments, have access to books, but no other details are given. Presumably, the only other people with access to books are the Committee of Elders, who might need to refer to them as they make decisions in the best interests of the community.

As with 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, The Giver also reminds readers of Nolan and Johnson's Logan's Run. In Logan's Run, age is strictly limited to 21; when an individual turns 21, the crystal in their palm turns black and they must report to Sleepshop, where they are willingly executed. Those who do not report to Sleepshop are Runners, and they are hunted down and murdered by a Sandman. Some readers may recall the 1976 film. The society depicted in The Giver has a similar problem with willingly being executed. When someone in The Giver is Released, that person is given a lethal injection. Newchildren who cannot adapt to the care of the Nurturers are Released; the elderly are Released; criminals are Released; the Giver of Memories will ask for his Release after his memories have been transferred to Jonas. Few people die naturally in The Giver.

While Jonas is clearly the anti-hero in Lois Lowry's The Giver, it is also possible to interpret that the Giver himself is also an anti-hero, who breaks the laws of society for noble purposes. The Giver, for whom the book is titled and through the memories he has stored understands love, may have been able to manipulate the Committee of Elders so that he is able to choose the birthmother of his children. He tells us in his own words that his daughter was the failed Receiver 10 years before, and "Her eyes were very luminous, I remember," he confesses. This may be a key revelation, since almost every citizen in The Giver has dark eyes, and Jonas' pale eyes are mentioned several times throughout the book as a distinguishing feature. In addition to Jonas and the failed Receiver, a female Five and the newchild Gabriel also have pale eyes. Lily, Jonas' sister, jokingly says to her family after seeing Gabriel for the first time, "Maybe he had the same Birthmother as you." Is it possible that the aging Giver has selected a single birthmother and engineered the birth of his own children? Is it also possible that Jonas may be his son? Is it also possible that the Giver encourages Jonas to escape the community in effort to save it from itself because he is now too old to survive an escape attempt? The suggestions and possibilities are intriguing.

The Giver is a powerful book with powerful themes. Astute readers will deftly make comparisons to other popular future dystopian novels such as 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Logan's Run. As with most dystopian visions, there is always an anti-hero, a Runner. For Lois Lowry, Jonas is her Runner, attacking the foundations of his community laid by one well-intentioned law after another. For Jonas, his community is founded and fostered by laws that eventually deprive its people the joy and paint of being human. For Jonas, that knowledge is too much to bear. Instead of asking for Release, he chooses to become an anti-hero and tries to transfer the memories he has already received back to the collective community.

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