Wednesday, February 05, 2014

"The Giver" gave me food for thought....

I enjoy reading novels described as "dystopian fiction" or "speculative fiction", so it was on the cards that sooner or later I'd come across Lois Lowry's The Giver for which she won the Newbery Medal in 1993. The novel was written with age 12+ young people as its target readership. I decided to give it a whirl anyway, having found it well-recommended in an online list of dystopian novels.

It's a slim volume, and quickly read - slim as compared to my last read, Stephen King's 11/22/63. I first tried to read The Giver some months ago, but put it aside after the first chapter, declaring it archly, "too young for me!" Then, recently, I read that a movie based on the book is in the works. Jeff Bridges has, it appears, had a yen to put the novel on film for 2 decades or more. This news had me digging the book from the bottom of my "to read" pile and starting it anew. This time I finished it.

Having no children of my own and never having had younger siblings, or much contact at all with children, though I was one once myself, in case anyone ever doubts it, I'm unaware of the rate of understanding children achieve at various age levels. When I'd finished the book I said to my husband, "12-year old kids wouldn't understand this!" On further thought, though, maybe the story can give young people valuable glimpses of things they'd not yet thought about. Complex issues, complex even for adults to grasp, set out in a way that would be easily digestible, and provide a leaping-off stage for later reading of those famous, deeper and darker more adult-aimed novels with themes not a million miles from that of The Giver.

The Giver is a story about a boy who lives in a world of the far distant future, a world where poverty, hunger, crime, discomfort, sickness, unemployment and unhappiness are unknown. The "Community" in which the boy, Jonas, lives is controlled in every aspect, down to the smallest details of everyday life. Even the types of clothes they can wear, and their hair styles are controlled. Jobs are assigned according to aptitude, spouses are assigned, children are assigned, the stirrings of sexual urges at puberty and onward are controlled. However, unlike some famous adult dystopian novels, these people are content with the way things are. Utopia might be a better description than dystopia. The Community, one of several others run along similar lines, is colourless (literally), people have, unknowingly, lost the ability to see colour. They have no memory, no history, no concept of what real love is, no rage or strong emotions.

At age 12 Jonas is selected for an honoured position: "The Receiver of Memory". The Community has been "freed" of all memories of the past, of all of the world's history. Memories are retained and held by one person only, known as The Giver. Jonas will take over this position in time, once he has received all of the world's memories from The Giver, who is now tired and frail.

When Jonas begins taking on the world's memories, along with accompanying pain, until now an unknown sensation, he begins to question the world of The Community in which he has grown up, a world of sameness. He begins to see a different world where colour once existed, where intense joy and pain, love and war, sickness, greed, and freedom of choice were all a part of life. How he reacts to these revelations fills the last part of the novel.

An adult (me) reading The Giver cannot help questioning certain elements which most children might not wonder about. Most importantly, I wanted to know how, and why, the situation in The Community had developed. How had memory been erased from the population? How had the ability to perceive colour been erased? Was it blanket brain-washing? Perhaps Ms Lowry intended these plot elements as metaphors, but would 12-year old children understand? The Community's world appears to be climate controlled, so technology has to be at a highly advanced level, presumably only available to the ruling counsel of elders. What about the land outside of the communities, that area described as "Elsewhere". What goes on there - are there people there too?

"Release", often mentioned in the story, isn't correctly understood by members of The Community, nor probably by young readers at first, but seasoned readers of dystopian fiction would cotton-on to it immediately. Soylent Green, nudge nudge, wink wink.

The novel has an open ending, left so for each reader to imagine their own version.

I can't say I didn't enjoy the read, I did, but was left wanting much more. I understand there are three more "sister" novels set in a similar world, but there's no actual sequel to The Giver. I don't want a sequel as much as a prequel!

What was the message Lois Lowry hoped to convey? That freedom of choice is essential for true happiness? That seriously dangerous possibilities appear on the horizon when all freedoms are denied to the people with control left in the hands of the few?

The novel does not tell the reader whether all the people of The Community were ever involved in making the original choice which brought about the Community's current rules, and if not, why not - or indeed why? Perhaps the people, bowed down with pain, hunger, sickness, scarred by many wars, were only too relieved to have the option of a carefree, pain free lifestyle - for all?

If Gian Paul, an old blog friend who lives in Brazil, were still around he'd be alerting me to the fact that this novel has echoes in it from an ancient allegory: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave from The Republic. In a nutshell HERE.

The Giver is, reportedly, a popular book presented for reading and review in schools, 5th grade and onward. I wonder if, perhaps, the young people see in it some reflection of the restrictions of school life, its rules and regulations, uniforms, time limits, homework requirements, etc.? Hauling my memory back and back, to when I was between 12 and 16 : what was I reading? Left to my own devices I read escape stories! Novels about escape or attempted escape from German prisoner of war camps, and life in Japanese prison camps....I devoured those! Escape! Yes! Couldn't wait to escape from school and from the town where I grew up. At school, at age 11 or 12 our reading matter, as I recall, was "Moonfleet" by J. Meade Falkner and "Prester John" by John Buchan. A couple of years on it was Dickens and Shakespeare all the way. A far cry from The Giver!

The film based on the novel is due for release in August. I shall look forward to comparing it with the book. Already I have misgivings. It is said that the leading role of Jonas has been "adjusted", to be played by a male several years older than 12. It bodes not well.


mike said...

I'm more likely to read a book than to see the book's movie version, of which is usually a disappointment. Added thrills, effects, and script re-writes to fit the needs of a captivated theater audience. A well written book assists my mind's eye at painting the characters and scenes, but not in minute details...a movie does all that for the viewer, plus fills all space with extreme nuances, leaving nothing to the imagination, which can often be ambiguous or distracting.

I've read quite a number of children's books as an adult...too many to recall and list here. Many fascinating kids' books out there waiting to be read. Like you, Twilight, I'm often surprised at the layers of meaning, sometimes seemingly more appropriate for an adult, but valid for a child, too, but perhaps with a loss of ulterior comprehension that comes with maturing. Weren't we just discussing "Alice in Wonderland" recently?

I just glanced-over the Barnes & Noble's list of children's of much good reading! I found any number of tomes I hadn't, but would like to read. I'll have to take a bus out to Half-Price Books soon.

"The Giver" sounds like a fine read. One does have to ponder the advantages of strife...natural selection depends upon it. The affairs of humans may require such a disposition as well. I don't think that we Earthlings will have to be concerned with a utopia for some time yet...there's plenty of dystopia to go around several times over.

mike (again) said...

P.S. - Maybe the take-home message of "The Giver" is that utopia vs dystopia is in the eyes of the beholder. I saw a Burt Wolf, "Travels and Traditions" last night about immigration into the USA. Many of the world's immigrants were facing very premature death and-or severe hardship via any number of methods, but found salvation here. This is (qualitatively) true even now. One black-eye was mentioned, that of the USA's turning its back on WWII European survivors' requests to immigrate, which were ignored.

Twilight said...

mike ~ I know what you mean about book versus film. Several times I've been inspired to read the book after having seen the film (whether at cinema or made-for-TV) based on the book. That has been a worthwhile after effect I think. But for keen regular readers, I can understand how a film version, seen later, might pale against the original.

Children's books - I feel certain of them are definitely written with an underlying layer to appeal to mature readers. "Alice in Wonderland" is maybe the best known of those. Maybe "Wizard of Oz" too?

This newer fashion of writing specifically for "young adults" probably brings in a similar subtle "layering effect".
"The Hunger Games" trilogy is an example I'd say, from the films, but I haven't ventured into the books yet.

mike (again) ~ Putting it another way, one man's uptopia is another man's dystopia. :-)

In reading "The Giver" I thought about my own attempt at a bit of fiction (you were kind enough to read and comment on it a while ago). Turned out, on further consideration, I'd written something more like an outline for a novel than anything else....but anyway, within it there is that same idea of a society where strong emotions had been bred out of the population, not so much for control in my case as for protection.

I wish I could dredge up enough enthusiasm to go back and fill-in that outline a little - but I've lost my muse, or whatever it!

mike (again) said...

I saw that you left a comment on Barry Goddard's Astrotabletalk about his creative writing assignment. I took a creative writing class in college and loved it. I have many stories in crevices of my brain, but I seem to lack the discipline to get them into the light. That was one of the highlights of the actual class with assignments...I can do it when I have to.

I know a woman in her 90s that decided she had stories to tell and joined several local community-based groups that provided creative writing classes. She began ten years ago and has recently slowed, but has written many great stories...some biographical, some fiction. She sent me several of her top stories that her class enjoyed and I, too, thought they were splendid. They read or exchange their stories and offer critiques of each others' work.

So, Twilight, investigate the availability of creative writing classes in your community, or organize one. Or find your spine and get disciplined...LOL...something I've not acquired, though I do have the time, but with too many fun, or otherwise, distractions. I'm a user of literature, so at least for that.

Twilight said...

mike (again) ~ I've thought about this in the past - creative writing course. Husband, like you took a course in college, but like you he lacks discipline (or the desire) to do anything with it - when he does, he's a painfully slow, but good writer.

I have discipline when I need it, but I need inspiration to kick it into gear - that's what's missing now. I could investigate an online course (looked into that some years ago), anything else would be out of the question for me due to either/or/and availability and transportation.

In my next life, perhaps I'll experiment with novel writing, when I've finished being a lawyer, a fine arts expert, a reporter, and
between jaunts to Mars, and exploring outer and inner space. LOL!