Previously in this series: The Secret Garden.
The strangest thing about this project is realizing just how many classic books I didn’t read as a kid. Books that weren’t even on my radar. What on earth is My Friend Flicka? What the hell did I do as a child?
Anyway, The Giver (Indiebound | Amazon) was definitely on my radar. That cover of the old man and the corner of a forest was on the shelves of every elementary school classroom, always on special display, as if to say “Okay, this isn’t on your reading list but c’moooooon.” But I never picked it up, and because of my unfamiliarity with the plot, I believed that this story meant that one of the Jonas Brothers was cast in the film. This made me picture someone vaguely Jonas-Brothers-looking as the main character the whole time.
I’m pretty sure The Giver would have blown my mind in fourth grade, but unfortunately now I’ve seen Pleasantville, so… It’s about a young boy, Jonas, growing up in a creepy town, where everyone is assigned everything. Spouses, children, jobs, etcetera. Eventually you learn that it’s because people got sick of all the war and disease and complication that choice and emotions brought, so they did away with it and gave everyone no-feelings pills. Now everyone bikes everywhere and do what they’re told, have careers assigned to them at the age of 12, and are eventually “released.” Children volunteer to give old people sponge baths. It’s bonkers.
I say you learn this stuff “eventually” because the book is 179 pages long, and it takes Lowry about 75 pages to even get to Jonas becoming the next Receiver of Memory, who is the only person in this community allowed to know what life was like “back and back and back.” It’s about 60 pages of vague anxieties and volunteering and then another 15 for the weird ceremony where he’s given his assignment. You meet his best friend, Asher, who says about five words in the whole book, and another girl, Fiona, his “gentle female friend” (cringe) who he would have a crush on if they hadn’t done away with crushes completely. I’m all for world building, but you know you can do that at the same time as plot, right? This pacing problem becomes even more infuriating later.
Ok so Jonas is selected to be the new Receiver of Memory. The Giver is the old Receiver, who begins transferring memories to him. This is where you learn that the world they live in doesn’t have color, and it is done really well. Seriously. There were bits before about Jonas seeing objects “change” for an instant, but you have no idea what he’s talking about, and it’s legitimately suspenseful. The Giver tells him that these “changes” happen because he has a gift and is beginning to see color, and that in the Before Times color just was, but they got rid of it because it made life complicated.
It’s a cool concept, and I honestly didn’t know until it was revealed that it was color, but I’m not sure it’s necessary. Yes, doing away with emotions and choice makes life “easier,” but I’m not sure seeing in grayscale does? The Giver does mention that flesh used to be all different colors, but now it’s just one, which you would be able to tell in grayscale or full color. I wonder what reading this book is like for someone who can’t see race. Must be amazing.
Jonas’s training to be the Receiver of Memory involves The Giver putting his hands on Jonas’s back and literally transferring memories to him. First they’re of things like snow and hills and rainbows, and then of hunger and disease and war. Jonas learns that yes, we’ve done away with pain, but we’ve also done away with extreme pleasure, and he is angry about it. I had no idea we were still writing thinly veiled anti-communist screeds in 1993, but there you go.
The main thing I got from this is that I would be the WORST Giver, because the first thing I would do is transfer memories of sex. I realize that telling a 12-year-old boy who just started taking his boner-repressing pill that sex exists would be a nightmare (and that this is a children’s book), but I would just be standing there like, “Oh you think a hammock on a beach is pleasure? Watch this.”
Back to the story, which I finished in two days and nearly threw into a pond.
We’ve just spent 150 pages watching the Giver transfer memories of feelings to Jonas, Jonas realizing that “releasing” citizens means killing them (Jonas, have you ever seen Logan’s Run?), learning that the previous child chosen to be the Receiver was the Giver’s daughter and she “released” herself because the burden of the memories was too hard, and about five pages dealing with being the only one who actually has any feelings. He’s mad at his dad because he discovers he’s been killing babies without remorse, even though the entire society is structured around not having feelings like remorse, and realizes that lying is a thing that adults may have permission to do, and basically freaks out that he is the only one who knows what true pain is.
“But Jaya, 150 pages?” you ask. “I thought you said the book was just 179 pages long. Surely Lowry cannot expect to wrap up this world in such a short period of time.” She does! After 150 pages, the Giver decides that society sucks and everyone should have their memories back (which happens if the Receiver dies, the memories just…float back to the people, somehow) and he and Jonas hatch a plan OVERNIGHT to make this happen, and then Jonas steals a baby and bikes away from the town forever.
And that’s it! He spends the last pages biking through the forest until he finds a hill with some snow and maybe some people who have their own memories, but you can’t even tell because he may just be freezing to death and hallucinating. You never see if the town gets their memories back and begins the hard process of dealing with feelings, you never see if Jonas actually finds a new home, you never learn what “Elsewhere” is or how the hell this society is set up so that there are all these isolated communities, but also planes, nothing. And I understand that books don’t have to end all wrapped up nicely, but you cannot just introduce a major plot point in the last 25 pages and then end before any of it is explained.
When asking various friends who had actually read the book what the hell this is all about, I got two answers. One was that the book sucked so who cares. The other was that it didn’t suck because it was sci-fi. It’s all allegory for how awful society is, which makes it okay!
First off, it is not sci-fi. It’s magic. Society got so bad that they just invented unexplained magic for people with blue eyes. Second, where is this allegory!? Sad as it is, all the awful memories the Giver has are not that crazy! It’s just like, run-of-the-mill war and hunger and disease (that’s awful to say), nothing insanely catastrophic (of course that’s all catastrophic). This is not a look at what our world could become if we continue down our current path. This is just a look at what some weird people did when they decided they didn’t like our world. It can’t be a look at a dystopian future because the moment when we would have decided to become that community is long past. We’ve seen the war and the hunger and the disease, and we did not become them.
And then I realized that the main issue of this book is one of branding.
This is not a book about a dystopian future and a warning about our current way of life. This is a book about becoming a teenager. Jonas is discovering that the emotions he had before are nothing compared to what actual anguish and love and fear look like. Everyone goes through this around puberty, when you have your first crush or your first desire or your first realization that your parents lie. And you feel completely, utterly alone, as if you’re the only person in the universe who has ever realized these things, and that it would be impossible for you to talk about them. For Jonas, that is actually the case.
Though Lowry only takes about 10 pages total to get into this, you do see Jonas going through the struggles every teenager goes through. You see it when he gets upset at his little sister for saying she was “angry” at someone at recess for not following the rules. He knows she’s not angry. He knows she is 8 and can’t even begin to feel what anger is. You see the betrayal he feels when he realizes his father is a murderer, and the disbelief that he could just come home from a day at work and act like nothing happened. You see it in the heartbreaking scene where he asks his parents if they love him and they say that “love” is an inexact word.
How beautiful would it be if what kids were taught about this book is that this is a universal experience? (And we can ignore the fact that Jonas deals with this all by running away forever). You have the rest of your life to read 1984 and Brave New World and Animal Farm, but save for Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret?, it seems like no one wants to touch the emotional turmoil of growing up. They just give you an anatomy book and figure that’s all you need, but it’s more than that. It’s realizing that following the rules isn’t what’s always right. It’s learning that adults don’t have it all figured out. It’s doing deep, personal calculus about what you think is right and wrong, and what you can accept in this world and what you can’t. And often, no matter how many friends you have, it’s an incredibly lonely process.
However, none of this excuses the book from having no fucking ending.