For the Young Adult Bestseller challenge (2018 Reading Challenge), I chose the dystopian coming of age tale, The Giver by Lois Lowry. Today, dystopian themes are a mainstay in the Young Adult category, a perfect allegory for adolescents discovering that the world isn’t the sugar-coated haven authority figures claim it is. However, when published in 1993, The Giver was one of the first teen targeted books set in a dystopian universe.
Lowry’s tale begins in a false utopian world called The Communities where the philosophy of Sameness applies to all aspects of daily life. Climate Control eradicated inclement weather. Flat terrain replaced dangerous and inconvenient hills. Everyone shares the same birthday—a baby born in January and another born in November of the same year would both turn one in December.
Major life choices are made by the Elders for the good of society. The committee assigns career paths when the kids turn twelve and training begins immediately. As adults, they are matched and married. They can apply to raise children. Each family gets one boy and one girl. The women who birth the children don’t get to raise any. And there are only fifty born a year.
Systems set in place generations earlier pre-empt potentially dangerous, painful or unpleasant situations. The result is a society structured to the extreme, driving emotions, passion, curiosity, joy and even colors into extinction.
After a brief introduction into this world, we focus on twelve-year-old Jonas as he begins his training to be Receiver of Memories, a high-ranking position. The Receiver of Memories is given the painful lonely task of being the only one to know what life was like before Sameness. Since there is only one Receiver of Memories at a time, the Elder who trains Jonas becomes The Giver and passes down the memories thought to be too painful or emotional for the people.
The memories range from fun to horrific.
While Jonas gets the exhilaration of a downhill sled ride (the world he inhabits no longer as snow or hills) he also experiences the memory of a crash that leaves him broken and bleeding. While physically unhurt his mind feels the pain. Jonas learns feelings and emotions by reliving memories that range from a family Christmas gathering to war and famine.
The training opens his mind and world. Not surprisingly, distance grows between Jonas and everyone he knows. As his world expands he longs to share what he’s learned yet is forbidden to speak of these memories. Really, only The Giver could relate anyway.
As Jonas matures, the rules that govern the society seem arbitrary and, in some cases, immoral. Once those rules begin to affect his family unit Jonas realizes he must take desperate measures bring awareness and free will to the others.
Though written in a flat, detached style reflecting the society our main character inhabits, Lowry doesn’t tame the dark subject matter. Cruelty done for the good of all is still cruelty and she shows it numerous times, from the public humiliation of Jonas’ friend Asher to Jonas’ torturous training. But perhaps the worst is in relation to the euphemism “release”. In an uncomfortably detailed scene she describes the event that pushes Jonas to action. It is sparse but unflinching.
At roughly 220 pages it is a quick read. For a teen, it can open a dialogue about several topics that are relevant like conformity, unquestioning obedience and forced “sameness”. It can also serve as a jumping off point for imagining a world without memories, choice or even difference.
Some aspects of Jonas’ world were chilling but familiar call backs to other dystopian universes. Birth mother assignments have a hint of Handmaid Tale. The removal of any meaningful emotional connection is reminiscent of Brave New World. The erasure of history smacks of Nineteen-Eighty-Four. Despite those minor similarities, Jonas and his haunting dystopian universe hold their own among the other books that serve as forewarnings of a bleak future if free thought and choice is crushed.