The Giver: A Reread

I first read The Giver in fifth grade.  It made me angry and it made me sad and it frustrated me.  To this day, I don't know why they had us read it then.  I was too young to understand it.  Or maybe, in a deep-down place, I did understand it, and that understanding frightened me, so I buried it with sadness and anger and confusion.

In this reading, I felt the book. To read it as a story wherein the character does A, B, and ends up at C is possible, but also deeply unsatisfying.  I remember a recent discussion among a bunch of kick-butt librarians on Facebook.  One older member finally read The Giver for the first time, and didn't understand why people loved it.  To him, it was too dark and depressing.  And I wondered if that's everyone's first experience with The Giver.  You think, "Oh, it's a book for kids.  It can't be so bad."  And really, the feelings it evokes aren't what I call Old Yeller Syndrome--that is, a sort of pathetically depressing book about Life and The Way Things Are When You Grow Up.  It's a creeping unease, a doubtful self-interrogation.  You start finding elements of The Giver's society in your own, and the reality--or potential for it--is the true fear factor.

Jonas is quite pleased with his life in the community.  He's nervous about the upcoming Ceremony of Twelve, when he will receive his assignment and role in the community, but otherwise, life is pretty good.  He and his family complete the rituals set out in the book of rules.  They tell their dreams, confess their petty sins, and move through life with a sort of effortlessness that masks fear.  Once a person is no longer useful to society, they are released to Elsewhere.  A release is a grand event, one that citizens look forward to and even ask for.  Jonas imagines it must be pretty nice, all of those old ones being released.  And the little babies his father cares after the Birthmothers of the community bear them: any sickly child who fails to thrive is also released, presumably to find another family in Elsewhere.

As a child reading this, I thought Elsewhere was a real place.  You know, next village over the hill.  How naïve I was!  Yet, that spared me the full horror of Jonas' society.  You and I--we know that people who no longer contribute to a society revolving around conformity and sameness must be disposed of.

But Jonas knows none of this--at least, not until he receives his assignment.  It is a great honor, they tell him, to be the Keeper of Memory.  He receives instructions that run counter to everything he's ever learned: he is allowed to be rude.  He is allowed to ask anyone anything and they must answer.

He can lie.

Untruths are not tolerated in this society.  Unless you are a Keeper.  And, as Jonas wonders, who else, then, can lie?

Jonas' training comes from an old man, though not so old as he looks.  The weight of collective memory has aged him and brings physical pain.  Long ago, humanity decided that remembering war and pain and suffering did more harm than good.  They were afraid, so they gave up their memory in exchange for the shackles of conformity and predictability.  Only memory needs to go somewhere, so a designated Keeper holds all the memories, stretching back, and back, and back, in order to keep the community from being uncomfortable.  Jonas will be that Keeper, but the current Keeper, now called the Giver, must transfer the memories to Jonas.  Memories of good things--yes.  Of rainbows and skies and snow in a land with no sunshine, no weather to speak of.  But memories like war and fear and blood and broken bones and despair--those too, and more so than the good, as so often happens with humans.

As he learns, Jonas begins to question the why of his existence.  Why cannot people choose for themselves?  The rote answer: because they could make the wrong choice.

But what if they made the right one?

In the end, he and the Giver concoct a plan to teach the people to deal with their memories, slowly at first, so as not to overwhelm them.  But Jonas' foster brother Gabriel suddenly faces release, and they steal away in the dead of night, hiding from heat-seeking planes, sleeping in snowdrifts, and remembering heat in order to stay alive.  The ending?  Ah, the ending.  Do Jonas and Gabe survive? Or have they already died?

If I showed you a picture I took of Lois Lowry at ALA Annual a few years ago, you'd know.  But this was the first book with an ambiguous ending that I'd ever encountered as a reader.  I didn't know what to make of it.  This knowing-not-knowing.  Endless arguments for and against their survival.  As a child, I didn't like this one bit.  It's comforting to have the end spelled out, to see things in black and white, particularly when you've just read your first dystopian novel and feel bewildered.

Now, I adore the ending.  It is perfect for this novel where humanity has chosen grayness as their standard.

If you read this as a young person and didn't like it, please reread it.  It puts most other dystopian novels to shame with its ability to convey horror in a restrained, almost camouflaged manner.  This is not an action thriller.  It is an exercise of the mind and soul, and one that we must perform regularly.

Most highly recommended.


  1. I think we might have a copy in my library, but no one has read it in years. I confess I haven't read it. Why write a children's novel that you can't appreciate till you're an adult, I wonder? :-) On the other hand, dystopia is very popular with kids these days and the response might be different.

    1. It's constantly on our "battle of the books" list and "english fest" lists so we go through copies like mad.

      I think it's more that there's different levels to it. As a kid, I knew something was wrong, but I didn't understand what it was. The way that Jonas received his memories was fascinating to me, as was the idea that no one saw in color. Going back and reading it as an adult, especially after having read a ton of YA/kidlit dystopian books, is really something. Lowry was quite the pioneer.


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