Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Book of the Week: THE GIVER by Lois Lowry

I’m so excited, Esteemed Reader (and I just can’t hide it). This week marks the first of two very big surprises at this blog. As I’ve said before and often, I’m thrilled every time a writer agrees to appear here. I feel the same way about the literary agents we’ve interviewed, as they are a writer’s ambassador to Quan. I couldn’t be happier with the success of all of these interviews and I think there’s something really very neat about having so many diverse writers answer the same 7 Questions. I feel I’ve learned a lot from these interviews and I hope you feel that way too, Esteemed Reader. Sometimes when I’m feeling blue about the writing business, I come back to my own blog and read these writer interviews and they inspire me to keep going.

In fact, the person who benefits most from all this blogging is me. I’ve been doing this for exactly one year this week and I feel I’ve learned more from reading and reviewing one middle grade novel a week than I did in four years in a creative writing program at Indiana University. I want to offer my most profound gratitude to every writer and every literary agent who has made time for us. This blog wouldn’t be what it is without them and we’ve had some incredible opportunities to talk with writers I never dreamed would be possible or I would have started blogging years ago.

So how shall we celebrate one year of our ninja training? How about with a classic middle grade book such as The Giver, one of my most favorite books? Oh, and by the way, this Thursday, mark it on your calendar, one of my childhood heroes, Lois Lowry will be here to face the 7 Questions. No, that’s not a typo, Esteemed Reader. You read correctly. Two time Newbery winner and one of the writers who first inspired me to pick up a pen, Lois Lowry is going to appear at this blog. How’s that for an anniversary celebration?

And that’s not all! Next week, another of my most favorite writers from my childhood and author of several classic middle grade novels will be here as well. Who is it? I’m not going to say as that would spoil the surprise, but I got word from her within the same 24 hours as Lois Lowry and my heart nearly exploded with happiness. I’ve found the only fair way to post interviews at this blog is in the order I receive them, so she will have to wait until next week, but make sure you’re here as you won’t want to miss this!

According to the back cover, The Giver is a Boston-Globe-Horn Book Honor Book, an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults, an American Library Association Notable Book for Children, a winner of the Regina Medal, a Booklist Editors Choice, a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, and it won the John Newbery Award. With all of that, do you really need me to tell you that The Giver is a really good book? Probably not, but I’m going to anyway. The Giver is a really good book and one of my all time favorites. If you haven’t read it, stop what you’re doing and read it now.

The focus of The Giver is the people living in The Community, a perfect society. There are echoes of Brave New World and 1984, but The Giver is only a dystopian novel depending on how you look at it. The Community is a utopia. It’s perhaps a little rough around the edges, true, but it’s a mostly perfect place and it has to be, or the main thesis of the novel would fall short. I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, but just remember that for this book to work, life in The Community has to be a life worth considering or there is no dilemma for our characters or the reader.

Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can. No need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man. Imagine all the people sharing all the world… You may say Lois Lowry is a dreamer, but this is the world of The Community. There is almost no pain, no sickness, no poverty, no religion, no racism, no one is left wanting for anything (and what they might want, they’ve never known), and almost no one is ever lonely. I know what you’re thinking, Esteemed reader: What’s the catch? Well there is one and we’ll get to it, but first consider life in The Community.

The people of The Community are healthy because for the first year of their life they are in the care of nurturers, who ensure every baby is the perfect weight and well taken care of by experienced professionals. There are no unwanted children in The Community and that right there is something to consider. Every child growing up in The Community is given everything they’ll ever need and cared for all the way into their old age.

True, the members of The Community do have to give up some things, but that’s not all bad either. At twelve years of age, a committee decides a person’s occupation and they go into training and there they’ll work for the rest of their lives, so job stability is never an issue. If a person requests one, a mate will be assigned to them. A mate carefully chosen by committee to ensure they are a perfect match for their spouse and later the couple can apply for two children, a girl and a boy. When the children have grown, they’ll live with their friends, Mom and Dad will live with their friends, and no one is lonely or rejected.

Again, I know what you’re thinking: how could anyone live with all of their decisions made by others and no freedom? Well, if I may play devil’s advocate, I might ask “what’s so great about freedom?” And temporarily suspend your patriotic programming as an American and really consider it. I’m fortunate that God put the perfect woman on earth just for me and I found her and married her, but Lord knows I found a few who weren’t her beforehand. There were others I could have married that might just have wrecked my life and made wretched my destiny. There was no committee to help me out and I might just have made the wrong choice. Anybody reading ever know anyone who made the wrong choice in a mate?

And what about career choice? Sure, I’ve found the perfect job for me and I couldn’t be happier now, but I spent a lot of years in wrong jobs I chose. And what about the folks we all know who just plain make the wrong choices all around? Their wrong choices don’t affect just them, we all suffer. A person making the choice to lose themselves in drugs or other indulgences may claim it’s only themselves they are hurting, but this is a lie as transparent as Charlie Sheen’s recent claim that he is only going to smoke crack socially (a funnier line than anything on his show).

My favorite thing about The Community is how they treat their old. When folks in The Community get old, they are moved to The House for the Old where they are cared for like the children. They never experience dementia or other horrifying sickness. No one is kept in a hospital bed for years suffering alone. When it’s time, the old person is surrounded by their friends and their life is celebrated. They tell the story of the person’s life and then he or she says one last goodbye and is “released into Elseworld.” Is that a euphemism that means what you think it means? There are no spoilers on this blog, but even if it does mean that, is that really so bad? I can think of much worse ways to go.

So what’s the catch, already? I know it’s our anniversary and all, but this review is running a little long. The catch is that The Community has no memory, no passion, and no sense of its past. They have no hate, but they also have no love. There’s a wonderful freedom in this as well, but is it worth it? I’m not going to tell you and one of my most favorite things about The Giver is that Lois Lowry doesn’t tell you either. The best books provoke the reader’s imagination and leave readers to ponder these questions for themselves and draw their own conclusions. Lowry implies some things, perhaps, but for the most part she is simply asking the question.

Nor is there a lot of explanation about the scientific workings that make The Community possible. Lowry wrote two sequels and I recommend them both and you can check them out if you want more details, but the details are sort of beside the point. There probably isn’t a one hundred percent plausible explanation for everything, but so what? Lowry wisely leaves much of these details to the imagination. For example, genetic engineering is never mentioned, but it’s certainly implied. And whether The Community is achieved through science, recovered UFO technology, or the wave of a wand, it makes little difference and a lesser writer going on and on about the explanation would be a waste of our time. We know The Community isn’t possible, but Lowry need only provide a few details to provoke us to consider the implications of such a world if it were possible. And The Community is very real for the characters in this story, which is what ultimately matters.

Instead, Lowry focuses on the story. When our hero, Jonas, turns twelve he is selected for the most unusual occupation of Receiver. Only one is picked every so many generations and no one really knows what he or she does, only that they need the Receiver and that it is the most important position in The Community. As Receiver, Jonas is separated from the rest of The Community. He is allowed to lie, something no one else is allowed to do, although how can he really know? He is also allowed to ask anyone anything and he is the only person who will know all that there is to know about The Community.

Jonas is sent to the old Receiver, who becomes The Giver, and what he’s giving are memories. I’ve said that The Community has no memory or sense of past. This is because the Receiver holds the memories for them in his head and when he grows old he transmits them to the new Receiver. The Giver transmits memories such as snow and sunburn to Jonas, which he has never experienced living in the climate controlled world of The Community. The Giver also transmits memories of war, poverty, suffering, disease, and all the rest of it to Jonas. But also colors and love, neither of which the people of The Community have ever known because they're colorblind (literally).

In order to achieve Utopia, these people have given up everything that might create passion in their lives, even music and, gasp, choke, books. What the heck would I blog about in such a world? This is the most weighty of concerns, I know:) I wondered if the people of The Community ever engaged in, ahem, adult relationships. As this is a book for younger readers, I didn’t think Lowry would cover it, but she does. After Jonas has an inappropriate dream about his sister and a bath (not his biological sister), his mother tells him he must take a pill each day to remove such “stirrings”.

I guess I sort of read over that part as a kid and didn’t catch it until now. But in our world we have Viagra, and in Lowry’s world there are pills that do the exact opposite. I won’t spend a lot of time on this, but I would imagine you adult readers enjoy the capacity to have such relationships. On the other hand, that same capacity has brought about plenty of suffering, so I ask again: Is The Community really that bad?

True, there is no color, no music, no art, no… um, kissing, no passion of any kind, and no books. We who love books might balk at the prospect, but that’s because we know about them. The people in The Community have never had these things and don’t know what they’re missing. Most of them don’t even know about death, and just think how much stress would be relieved if you didn’t know you were going to die one day (spoiler, I know).

But now Jonas does know and the question is what’s he going to do now that he knows? Could it be that something traumatic has happened to The Giver that will make this giving and receiving of memories different than any such giving and receiving that has come in generations past? Of course it could, or this novel will be episodic and there would be no story worth telling that makes this time in The Community’s history more notable than any of the others Lowry could have chosen. But I have promised no spoilers and even though a few probably slipped through, here we’ll leave it.

I haven’t touched much on craft and I’m afraid I’m not going to this week. Lowry does everything right from start to finish. Like a work of Mozart, the misplacing of a single note could mean diminishment, but Lowry absolutely nails every aspect of craft and delivers what may just be a perfect book. Her prose is clear and crisp and never a distraction. In fact, I was so completely drawn into the story upon reading this book, I forgot to take that many notes even though I already knew the ending. The Giver sucks its reader in and I read the whole thing in a single sitting because it became physically impossible for me to put the book down.

Fair warning: there are some extremely disturbing scenes in the later part of the book that would make Stephen King say, “Dude, that’s messed up!” I’m not going to spoil them either. Still, sensitive readers should be aware that you may be most unpleasantly shocked. But remember, it’s good to be shocked every so often.

Be sure to be here on Thursday when none other than Lois Lowry will be here to face the 7 Questions and check back on Saturday as God willing, we’ll have a literary agent here on Saturday as well. By the way, I mentioned God several times in this review, but I also listed “no religion” as a quality of utopia. That is sort of perplexing, isn’t it? I never do quite reveal my full thoughts on religion or even most political issues do I? Thanks for a great year of giving and receiving on this blog everybody:)

And now, because I see I have not included a single passage from the text in this entire longwinded review, I’ll leave you with some of my favorite bits from The Giver:

It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened. (a great opening line if I ever read one--MGN)

But her father had already gone to the shelf and taken down the stuffed elephant which was kept there. Many of the comfort objects, like Lily's, were soft, stuffed, imaginary creatures. Jonas's had been called a bear.

"There's administrative work, and the dietary rules, and punishment for disobedience--did you know that they use a discipline wand on the Old, the same as for small children?"

“Definitely not safe,” Jonas said with certainty. “What if they were allowed to choose their own mate? And chose wrong?
“Or what if,” he went on, almost laughing at the absurdity, “they chose their own jobs?
“Frightening, isn’t it?” The Giver said.
Jonas chuckled. “Very frightening. I can’t even imagine it. We really have to protect people from wrong choices.”

“It’s bye-bye to you, Gabe, in the morning,” Father had said, in his sweet, sing-song voice. (really only effective if read in context, but if you’ve read the book, you know the impact of this line –MGN)

After countless tries, the net yielded two flopping silvery fish. Methodically, Jonas hacked them to pieces with a sharp rock and fed the raw shreds to himself and to… (spoiler — MGN).

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.


  1. Yahoo! Happy one-year anniversary. I'm honored to have been part of the content of your wonderful blog for your first year. Can't wait to read Lois Lowry's interview and your mystery author as well . . . and all the exciting things you must have up your sleeve for the next year!

  2. Congrats on your blog anniversary. I loved The Giver though I read it as an adult. Can't wait for the interview. I'll be on vacation but will try to catch it on my phone.

  3. I love The Giver too. On many levels. I'm excited for the interview. Very cool.


Thanks for stopping by, Esteemed Reader! And thanks for taking the time to comment. You are awesome.