The Giver book review
The Giver by Lois Lowry is a puzzling book. It’s an eerie, sparse, dystopian tale which floats outside most conventional expectations. It’s not really about the characters or the plot so much as it is a general mood or an intuition, maybe even a prolonged suspicion, sustained over time in a general direction. This is both its strength and its weakness.
For what at first seems to be the exploration of a kind of universal fear of meaninglessness and cold pragmatism ends without any significant comfort or resolution. In the end we are left wondering what to do. The author provides no answers beyond a vague sense that feeling is better than numbness.
The truth is out there
The novel unfolds through the eyes of Jonas, an eleven year old boy living in some nonspecific town in the future. It is regimented community where everything is ordered by rules and committees. Every hour of every day is scripted and those who don’t fit in or grow old are “released” to some mysterious place.
Despite the fact that nothing really happens in the first third of the book, the mystery of what is behind it all sustains the story. We read to know, and we hunger for answers along with Jonas, even if he is too well-adjusted to seek them on his own.
Or maybe not
When Jonas receives his assignment, which dictates his future profession, the plot picks up and answers begin to come. And they are not what we would have expected. I won’t spoil it here, but the concept of The Giver, whom Jonas meets at this time, is intriguing and original, even if the reasons for his strange abilities are never actually explained.
As Jonas begins to uncover the past and the dark secrets behind his community, he has many experiences which affect him deeply. During one of these, he is confronted by the reality of death and war. Oddly, the dying men he meets cry out for water or their mother. While I have not experienced war myself, I do not believe that real men would really cry out for their mothers. Think of them? Yes. But cry out? As if their mothers could fly in from Houston or Cairo or wherever they were living. Just one of the oddities which crops up in the second half of the book.
In another experience, we’re shown a Christmas scene and told that this is the happiest of all possible experiences in life. But why? Because of the grandparents and the brightly wrapped presents and the lights and the hugs and the good cheer, apparently. Is that really a basis for ultimate joy?
If so, I imagine such experiences could be contrived to be included in Jonas’ community. Why is the Christmas ritual (for that is all we’re really shown of it) more valuable than the rituals of the community? The sentiments are certainly preferable to the austerity of Jonas’ community, but in the end this sentiment is simply subjective. It does show how families can be bigger (thus the grandparents) and more expressive than Jonas’ own, but are a little more feeling and sentimentality really the answer for the terrible problems at the heart of Jonas’ world?
A journey to the great unknown
In the end Jonas’ search does not lead him to real answers. Yes, he does come to reject the sterile, emotionless world of the community he grew up in. And he makes some worthy sacrifices along the way which make him a sympathetic character. But he does not find anything substantive to replace what he is rejecting.
We know his life is bad, but that doesn’t mean he ends up finding a genuine alternative. He certainly comes to a place where his choices and feelings won’t be repressed, but it’s an uncertain victory. Because what this story is missing is hope. Hope that there is an answer for the sins that caused the creation of his community in the first place.
And that’s too bad, because this is very interesting, unique, and well-told story for the most part. If only it delivered better on the promise of its premise.
Because we need answers. Even in stories. Otherwise what we end up with is a puzzle with several pieces missing.