What would a world without pain look like? It would look perfectly same. A world without pain would be a world without worry, fear, or suffering, but it would also be a world without real happiness, real joy, real love, and real warmth. This is the world of Jonas 11-19, an almost-12-year-old boy awaiting his Assignment to a prescribed role in the Community to which he belongs.
This is one of those amazing books that's hard to describe without giving too much away. Lois Lowry gives readers so many jolts and surprises that any kind of plot summary seems like a crime against those who haven't read The Giver, so let's just say that in the futuristic world of Jonas, the Giver, and their Community, true feeling is dead.
In the midst of this deadness, Jonas struggles to make sense of his training carried on in extreme privacy with an old man often bent double in pain. The old man, the Giver, assures Jonas that the pain will eventually be his, and that carrying the memories of the Community is terrifying, lonely, and necessary. The Giver's job is to transmit his millions of memories to Jonas.
This is not a book for everyone, and it's not because Jonas bathes an old woman or has adolescent feelings of yearning for his friend Fiona, of whom he sometimes dreams. It's not because the world of the Community is deeply unsettling and precariously imminent in our 21st century globalized society. It's not because of the sometimes extreme violence Jonas experiences through the Giver.
What makes this book extremely difficult even for mature readers are its themes. In the context of the Community these themes are always discussed in euphemistic language—sexual desire is referred to as Stirrings, totalitarian oppression becomes "what works," and euthanasia, abortion, suicide, and infanticide are called Release.
Most of these are dealt with carefully and discreetly by the author, but Jonas does have a dream of wanting to bathe Fiona (nothing happens), and there is a truly horrifying description of infanticide that the boy is forced to watch.The Giver well deserves all the awards and accolades it's won, including the Newbery Medal, but it's not for young readers.
And yet, it's an important book for adolescents and teens to read. There is a worldview problem in the sense that Lowry seems at times to privilege feeling and emotion over rational thought (biblically, the two work together), and at one point the Giver tells Jonas to trust his feelings (the heart is desperately wicked, etc.), but overall she's right on target.
In the world of Communities, human individuality has been severely truncated if not demolished in order to preclude suffering of any kind, whether broken bones, loneliness, warfare, weakness, or anger. Like self-medicating psychiatrists, each member of the Community is brainwashed to constantly analyze their feelings, and thereby to dispel them. As a result, there is no sorrow, no real terror, and no freedom.
But such a world has grievous consequences. Those not needed by the Community are summarily Released, which is shorthand for state-sanctioned "mercy-killing." Human choice is non-existent, because the Community works like a good machine, meeting all needs and disposing of anything extraneous.
Jonas has several very meaningful conversations with the Giver in which they discuss these things honestly. Lowry's conclusion is that allowing people to make their own choices is extremely dangerous, but necessary for their humanity, thus affirming a basic truth about humanity's creation in God's image. She also pointedly demonstrates throughout the book that taking away pain is only possible in a world where freedom, human dignity, and the possibility of real joy are also destroyed.
This is by far among the darkest and most thoughtful of the Newbery Medal winners, and also one of the most rewarding. In many ways our society is headed for a situation similar to that of Jonas's Community, and this is a severe warning. But it's also a celebration of all that's good and worth saving in this world, and one that ends on a hopeful if somewhat bittersweet note. Highly recommended for teens and adults alike.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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