Book Review: The Giver by Lois Lowry

This is kind of a classic book. I first read it in sixth grade, which to me is a pretty young age to understand the depth of the issues raised in the novel but maybe it’s like a first run through. I also think I read it in high school. I recently got it in audio and so thought I’d give my take on things.

The book is set in a fictional world. In this world everything is extremely orderly, controlled and precise. There is a huge amount of rules thatdicctate everything from how many children each family has, to how you should talk, style of clothing ETC. In fact much of people’s life isn’t even about individuals just obeying the rules, big parts of it are decided for them by one comittie or another. These different groups of people govern all aspects of things in each community and the only difference between one community and another are slight changes in rules, houses ETC.

Comitties choose things like who someone’s spouse would be, one applies for that. As well as children two per family. At 12 years old each child is assigned their adult job and begins training for that.

The family ddepicted is Jonas, his mother father, and sister Lily. Jonas tells his parents he is apprehensive about the upcoming ceremony where he will get his job. He spent like forever on his way home from school trying to figure out the exact word for his feelings as a huge part of the culture is “precission of language.”

His parents reassure him that they felt the same way and that assignments are crafted so carefully they’re doubtful anything could go wrong.

Each night the family shares their feelings and discusses them. These are very short rational discussions and seem very rigid and formal. The interactions between family members even in one’s home are very formal, almost mechanical. There is a lot of apologizing as per the rules for any kind of “rudeness.” Which could be anything from using the wrong word. To pointing out someone’s differences, a physical trait or even that someone is especially good at something.

All time with other members of the community seems to be spent in public places there are no families coming together for parties or anything or friends spending time together. Jonas and his friends, and all kids are either at school, at childcare/ recreation until their parents get home or volunteering. For four years each child does volunteer hours to help determine their adult assignment.

Jonas volunteers at the house of the old. When an adult reaches a certain age, they stop living with adults who have no children and go to the house of the old where they are respected and taken care of. While bathing an old woman he finds peace in the warm room and likes the feeling of trust he has for her as he bathes her. The rules state that the only people one is allowed to see naked are new children, babies and old people.

That night he has a dream about a friend feona and wanting to bathe her. Every morning the family tells their dreams if they have any. This is mandatory as is the telling of feelings. His parents recognize his dream benign as it is as his first “stirrings.” Sexual feelings. There is no shame or awkwardness around this he is told to take a pill each morning as his family does.

His father is a nurturer. Babies when born are taken from their assigned birth mothers (each woman has three births) and are cared for by nurturers who insure their proper development before their named and given to families. One child Gabriel is causing a lot of concern. He’s developing normally but doesn’t sleep well at night. They’ve decided to give him another year to see if this issue will be settled.

His father and family in a huge bend to the rules are allowed to have him home at nights. His sister Lily notices that Gabe has pale eyes as Jonas does when other members of the community have dark eyes.

Sometime before the ceremony Jonas and his friend Asher are playing catch with an apple. In the air something changes about the apple that mystifies Jonas. He is unable to explain it and it’s clear Asher doesn’t see it either. It troubles him but he can’t bring it up to anyone.

The cerimonies every December show that even one’s age is controlled. Each year for example the children born that year become “a 1.” Putting the letter a before the number makes it even more less individual as they’re one in a whole group rather than individually that age. Then each year the children all move up one age group. Each age has a milestone. Like at a certain age the kids get different jackets, one with buttons down the back to encourage cooperation, and then a couple years later one with buttons down the front. As newchildren each gets a “comfort object.” (usually of imaginary animals like elephants, bears, and hippos) but as “an eight” they’re recycled to give to the next group of ones. At a certain age each child gets their bike, the mode of transport for all citizens.

Some of the cerimonies are exciting to watch others not so much. And Jonas and his friends are so eager to get their assignments. All this takes two days.

Finally the elevens line up by number. Each child has a number as well as a name. Numbers are only used ffor formal occasions like this. Jonas watches assignments take place. His friend Feona is a caretaker for the old. Fun loving Asher is the assistant director of recreation. (as a side note each child gets a little speech by the chief elder. In Asher’s they jokingly discuss Asher’s issues with “precission of l language.” That he wouldn’t make a good instructor of threes where this is the important part of teaching. That when he was a three he made many mistakes particularly mixing up the words snack and smack. Children due actually get smacked with an obedience wand for errors or misbehavior. This traumatized him so much he stopped talking for awhile. But then did learn better precission.)

Finally the numbers climb to 19. But then incredibly Jonas is skipped. It is like this huge major deal for anyone in the community to make a mistake so everyone is anxious and unsure what’s going on. At the end of the ceremony the elder apologies to Jonas and the rest about what happened. But says that Jonas has been especially assigned. Selected as the new receiver of memory. Everyone is in awe. Jonas is a bit confused because he really doesn’t get the importance of the job. Just that this guy he’s bearely seen is held in extremely high esteem and advises the commitie of elders on things. Jonas went to the stage, the current receiver there. The elder went on a lengthy explanation about how important this job is that it’s the highest honor. That there was a failure ten years ago when selecting a receiver so for awhile they didn’t dare. But Jonas fits the qualities: intelligence, the ability to aquire wisdom, bravery and the ability to “see beyond.” Jonas doesn’t think he has this quality and anxiously tries in his mind to find a way to explain this when he looks into the crowd and sees the thing as he did with the apple but with the faces. And he knows he does have it.

People treat him differently then, kind of distant and like they don’t quite know what to do. The list of rules he is given that night is short but shocking as it goes against all the community rules that have been burned into him and others. Mainly it says he can’t discuss his training with anyone, he is allowed to ask anyone any question and get an answer, he is exempt from rudness, he can lie, he can not ask for release. Release, being what happens to the old after they have their life story ceremony, to people who break the rules three times, and sometimes to new children. As Jonas and others understand it when someone is released they go “elsewhere.” Somewhere beyond the realm of the communities as the people know them.

He’s not bothered by that though. But the ability to lie, and rudness and questioning he just can’t imagine it.

His first meeting with the giver sets Jonas on a journey of discovery, almost a reprograming from the group mentality of the community. To understand everything that the other citizens don’t want to dwal with that they consciously “did away with.” All of these things are kept as memories. Millions of them and the receiver has to hold them, to bear the pain of them. At first Jonas doesn’t quite get it. He thinks he’s just comin to listen to the reciever’s memories of his childhood. He tries to explain that no, this is more collective from way before his birth.

The first memory that is chosen for Jonas to reciev is a ride on a sled down a hill. This is the point that we find out that this place has no snow, no changes in weather and no hills. Jonas is awed by the memory. He has many questions and it is explained that people consciously let go of climate change because it made rowing food more difficult and other reasons. Hills made transportation on bikes and trucks impossible.

The receiver gives Jonas another memory. He askes him to try to perceive the word that he won’t tell Jonas what it is. It’s the memory of sunshine.

Jonas knowing that there is pain involved and is afraid of that, asks for a painful memory. In line with the weather memories he is given the memory of a sun burn.

Jonas is filled with questions about all this but the session is over. He asks the receiver what he should call him as he is actually the new receiver. He says the giver.

Over the days and weeks and months that follow Jonas and the giver take a journey that no one in the community can even imagine. It’s an unlearning of the rules, of the basic fabric of assumptions that’s held the culture of the community together. It’s an exploration of lack of choice and individuality. Of all that the community lost when it went to “sameness.” The giver uses this word a lot to delinate between the culture now and what there was before.

One day Jonas is with Feona and sees “the change” in her hair. Upone exploring with the giver he is told he is seeing the color red. He’s like what? There is no concept of color in the community. Only size and shape. Now in all the memories there is color.

Jonas receives easily, and thinks critically about things. The Giver is good about letting Jonas process what he’s given, talk about his new awarenesses and thoughts and ask any questions or say anything that comes to him. Jonas goes back and forth between being afraid of the implications of the memories, comparing them to his life now and understand why it’s “not safe.” And then more and more, becoming angry about the fact that so much vibrancy and nuance is lost to the community and that they’d rather have it that way.

Things take a turn when Jonas asks the giver to start giving him memories of pain. After all the giver has centuries of memories to give. He is an extremely kind compassionate man and is reluctant but knows he has to. Jonas seems to like the snow sled scene so he gives him one where the hill is icy and steep and Jonas breaks his leg.

From then on each memory that he gets for most of the sessions is filled with physical and emotional pain. Neglect and injustice and greef. One day he gets a memory probably set in Africa of an elephant being killed by pochers and the greef of a fellow creature. At home he tries, subtley to transmit some awareness of his learnings to his family. As Lily has an stuffed elephant who she believes is not real he tries to give her the feeling of the awesome power of a real elephant. She doesn’t receive anything at all and is annoyed by his touching her. Touch isn’t something done in the community beyond the family, and even there there are no hugs or affectionate touches mentioned.

He tries to give asher the experience of the color of a flower. He is even more unnerved by the touching and doesn’t get it at all. Meanwhile Gabriel is developing on target but continues to have sleep problems. Jonas offers to have him sleep in his room. That night he unintentionally transfers a peaceful memory to him. He was simply rubbing his back and thinking about one and it came through his hands and had an emediate affect on the child. Proving that Gabriel has the ability to receive unlike anyone else. But he doesn’t tell the giver this.

Many days Jonas doesn’t have training because the Giver is in so much pain. One day he comes and asks him if he can help. In desperation the Giver transmits the most nightmarish memory Jonas has gotten so far of war. He is almost traumatized by it. But he continues his training. The Giver backs off and gives him more mild happy memories. He experiences birthday parties, encounters with animals, camping and other beautiful and peaceful experiences that take his breath away.

He asks the Giver what his favorite memory is. He gladly gives Jonas a memory of a family at Christmas. Jonas is totally overcome with the feeling or warmth and connection in the memory. He can’t get the word for the overall feeling, just that he fit right in and it was so peaceful and cozy. They get into a discussion of grandparents. As this is yet another thing he has no concept of. When children leave their family unit their parents go to live with the childless adults. Children then basically never see their parent’s again right up through when they’re released. This makes Jonas a little sad. He tries to rationalize that the situation isn’t safe due to fire in a fireplace and candles, but we know deep down he’s integrated what he’s learning on an emotional level and is more and more drifging from the society that felt so safe to him.

Asking his parents if they love him he is met with awkward embarrassment. They say that love is a meaningless word and enjoyment and pride are better descriptions. Jonas is stunned as love was so meaningful to him. He realizes that the members of his society really don’t have feelings in spite of the reationalizations each night. Their feelings are extremely shallow as they don’t have the depth of experience and visceral sensations that come with normal life. He is now experiences true outrage, greif but also joy. He is now seeing colors all the time and feeling so apart from those around him. His discussions with the Giver turn towards how lonely this life will be for him, and Jonas earnestly wishing things were different.

When twins are born one is released if they’re identical. Because it would be “too confusing.” The day his father releases the twin Jonas asks the giver about his feelings and thoughts on release. He talks about what happened ten years ago. That the girl selected while she received well and was eager was overwhelmed by the painful memories. There weren’t rules against release for her so she requested and was granted it. When she left the memories went to all those in the community. Even though it was only a month’s worth it overwhelmed them deeply. The giver was so greif stricken he didn’t help them. Jonas asks what if an accident happened and Jonas was lost. The giver said struck by a new insight that maybe he could help the community as he helps Jonas to come terms with everything.

Jonas says he might like to see a release. The giver encourages him saying that every ceremony is recorded. He watches at first seeing nothing but his father weighing and examining the baby and being affectionate. But then in horror what Jonas thought was an injection all babies receive was really a lethal one. He kills the baby and puts it in a garbage disposal and “waves bye-bye.”

Jonas is completely overwhelmed. Overwhelmed probably being (not to be like these people) but probably not accurate to describe his greif. If he were living in 2016 he probably would have been sent to the psych unit. The Giver holds him and tries to comfort him but mostly lets him express his total outrage at the depth of the cruelty existing in a place that on the surface seemed so free from trouble.

Jonas refuses to go back home and he and the Giver make a plan for him to leave, at the ceremony which is actually coming up soon. After Jonas leaves the giver will come bacdk to the community and help the residents deal with the faloutt.

However this plan is shattered when his father says that due to Gabe’s fretfull night sleep persisting for a year now (only calmed by Jonas transferring peaceful memories at night) and apparent when he was taken to the nurturing center the previous night, he will be released the next day.

He escapes the community with Gabe throwing away all care for rules all he wants is to get away from this horrifying place that used to be home. He actually gets so far away that he enters the world as we know it. Woods and snow and sun and streams. But it gets colder and snowier. He tries to find food and keep the baby warm. Eventually beyond exhausted he finds a sled at the top of a hill. He and Gabe ride down the hill and Jonas sees a welcoming world below.

This book is so amazingly crafted. Such detail and nuance to the setting and chracters. And the messages that there’s too much of a good thing. That someone take a concept like wanting everything the same for various reasons and take it to the extreme, essentially making all aspects of a full quality of human experiences disappear. And that what seems such a benign world can hold the deepest cruilties of routinely killing many many people. Basically everyone who reaches a certain age, and not think anything of it. They don’t have the ability to feel real feelings so it doesn’t affect them Only those few randomly able to have the depth of wisdom and emotion that Jonas and Gabe have can discern what’s beyond the surface.

The forcing of one person to hold all the extremes of good and bad of centuries so that the whole can be spared is also one of the cruelest things the society does. It shows how selfish and shallow they are unable to see how they cause this one person tutorous pain.

As I said before though I haven’t read much about cults I’ve heard a bit about deprograming. The person slowly being exposed to ideas that conflict with the group mind and being made to allow themselves to take these in. It’s a traumatic process for Jonas. But the ending I feel is a happy one.

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