The Giver by Lois Lowry was assigned to every other English class in high school except for mine, so it seems, and I can’t believe it took me so long to finally read it. I knew the author’s name and read her Newberry Medal winning novel, Number the Stars many years ago. I expected a poignant and provocative story, but I was surprised by the intricacies of the story world she created in The Giver.
Also a Newberry Medal winning novel, The Giver introduces the viewers to a seemingly utopian society through the eyes of twelve-year-old Jonas. Things are orderly and simple. Each person has a distinct place in society and clear-cut duties. The rules are simple, and everyone obeys. But Jonas unfolds the community before our eyes, the vision becomes flatter, starker, and dystopian. When Jonas turns twelve, he gets his assignment. He is to become the Receiver of Memory. We learn that all memories of anything OTHER or ELSE belongs solely to the Receiver of Memory. Now the former Receiver becomes The Giver and starts handing over memories to Jonas, one by one. Jonas learns of snow and sun and love. It’s a little bit of Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron" with The Matrix thrown in for good measure.
Lowry paints the outlines of this world by describing the structure, how things work. But that is only the first half. Then she fills it in not by showing what is there, but what is not. The community is vivid in its emptiness, in its lack of things. And by doing so Lowry points out the most important parts of humanity. She shows us the things that make life truly meaningful and enjoyable, but she doesn’t beat us over the head with it.
Lowry could have taken the ideas and pushed each to the extreme, beating the readers over the head with her point, but instead she took a much gentler approach. This isn’t like the third installment of The Matrix when Neo gets blinded and dies and you can almost hear the Wachowskis shouting, “Get it? Because he’s Jesus!” in the background. I know. I want to forget that movie too. But remember The Matrix, the original that was so full of nuance and delicious ambiguity? This is more like that, but without the black leather, dark sunglasses, or the best shot of a helicopter flying into a building ever. Lowry presents her ideas in a clear and understated way and then steps back and lets them sink in. This isn’t shock and awe, but the point definitely comes through. A lesser author could easily have taken the idea to a place of disdainful finger-wagging. I find myself wishing the ending had been clearer, but that would have destroyed some of the nuance I was just lauding.
The story isn’t full of action or drama, but it doesn’t need it. It’s a coming of age story that doesn’t just deal with a boy learning who he is, but learning what it means to be human. For science fiction and fantasy lovers alike, the story world here is nothing to scoff at. Among fictional visions of the future, The Giver doesn’t usually stand alongside Orwell, Huxley, and Bradbury, but perhaps it should. In its own quiet way, The Giver makes a potent statement about the world and all our human flaws and strengths.