April 6, 2009

The Giver

Intrigued by one of PattyP's posts I ordered The Giver for my kids and read it yesterday to check it out.

Now I am deeply disturbed.

This is going to be a bit of a spoiler so be warned.

The first part of the books was really good, depicting life in an idyllic society where everything is planned and everyone is kind and coureous to everyone else. Parents are patient and talk at length with their kids, teachers take genuine interest, punishment is well-considered and fair and everyone follows the rules. They aren't exactly brainwashed but they do see themselves as contributors in a society and believe in the rules they are asked to follow. No one is hungry. Arguments end in respectful apologies. There is no war or want or neglect.

It sounded awesome.

Then our hero, a 12-year-old boy, nice kid, is selected to be the new Receiver for the community. We find out that this means receiving the collective memories of all people from all time, even the early days when there was war, hunger, neglect and murder. By receiving these memories he protects everyone else from having to deal with them.

This isn't the disturbing part, so far the book is still just intriguing.

What the boy discovers as he receives more and more memories are colors (which no one else in the community can see) and emotions (which no one else in the community can feel). It turns out that people have chosen safety and order over colors and emotions.

This is illustrated by what's going on at home. At first it seems like the boy has a perfect family life, with kind, patient, successful, openly communicative parents. Early on in the story his dad - not his real dad but one of the parental appointees responsible for raising him - brings home a third child, a baby boy who is not growing fast enough. The dad works with newborns until they are old enough to place in foster families and is concerned that this little boy isn't growing fast enough. He thinks he'll do better in a real home environment. The stakes are high because if the boy fails to meet his standard growth measurements he will be 'released' from the community instead of being fostered out.

So here we learn something disconcerting about the society but the dad seems like a good, concerned person who is genuinely trying to give the baby boy a chance. The whole family rallies around the baby boy, Gabe, and treats him with love and affection.

Gabe lives with them for about a year and a half at which time he has still failed to grow sufficiently and has difficulty sleeping through the night. The dad explains conversationally over the dinner table that Gabe will have to be released after all.

From his training as receiver, our hero knows this means that Gabe will be killed and is horrified by his family's casual attitude to this. He therefore decides to run away with Gabe in order to save him.

OK, I'm on board with that.

At this point the book is almost over. There are a few more pages describing his getaway with Gabe, how they hide from the search planes, how the memories he has received so far fade as he moves further from the community and finally, how they starve and freeze when they leave the cultivated community lands. By the last page, Gabe is a limp scrap of expiring life and our hero is trying desparately to keep him warm and alive with his last memories of sunshine.

Then, at random, they find a sled on a mountain top that the boy somehow knows will be there and sled down to some mysterious people that are supposedly waiting for them, which I assume is a comforting fantasy that occurs as they are both freezing to death.

I hated the end of this book. I'm not sure where these two boys were supposed to go once they left their safe, controlled community but surely freezing to death on a mountaintop wasn't the only option.

If anyone else who has read this book has a different interpretation I'd love to hear it. I'm haunted by thoughts of sweet little Gabe today.


  1. Well, this is a Newbery Award winner from the early 90's, so I read it what, 35 years ago? I know it has been banned in some schools and taught in others because of the issues (infanticide, euthanasia). Since I read 1984 and Animal Farm and Logan's Run as a kid, the issues (often couched in SF or fantasy terms, such as Swift's Modest Proposal or Gulliver's Travels) were not a surprise. But I wouldn't expose my girls to Lowry's book until somewhere over 10. As the child of a Holocaust survivor, and one living in Berlin, I struggle constantly with the issue of what to teach my girls and my current answer is: not yet. I learned the reality of man's inhumanity to man too early. I think there are a lot of years ahead of us to explore these issues. I think your children are far too young and 5-8 years will make a real difference to your children as well.

  2. Heck, no, my kids aren't going near this book. Although they are in their matter-of-fact stage and would possibly handle the ending better than I did. I'm all about the happy ending. I was just hoping maybe I read the ending wrong and they really did escape to a better place. . .

  3. Never read it, and from your description? Never will.

  4. Does it change anything to know there are two more books in the series?

    My 11-year-old counts this as one of the best books she has ever read due to the critical thinking it evokes.

  5. Thanks Patty that helps a lot. Knowing the kids survive makes it a good book for me. The end was extremely ambiguous, all that hypothermia and then the handy sled just appearing. I still think my kids are too young for it but I might order the sequal for myself, just to check up on little Gabe.

  6. I like the idea of books that do stretch the reader into 'critical thinking' but I think due to the issues that it tackles only children from about 11-12 yrs of age and up are cognitively ready for critical thinking. Please let us know what happens in the sequal!

  7. I have heard so much about this book, but I didn't really realize what it was about. I think I'm putting this on my reading list.

  8. S just finished reading this for 7th grade English. His teacher did an outstanding simulation where they held a trial based on the details of the book. Should "releasing" be considered acceptable? Under what circumstances? What are the rights of the group vs the rights of the individual? Pretty heady stuff for a bunch of 12 year-olds, and S was more fired up for English class than he's been all year.

  9. I haven't read this book but my kids have had to for school. Some liked it. My oldest son hated it with a passion.

  10. Obviously not a book for young readers, but 11 and up is appropriate -- we read it as a family on a vacation trip, and it sparked a great deal of discussion.

    My son had requested we read it as a family. He had a teacher who read it to the class in 6th grade -- and Wolf makes a good point that adults often don't give children/young adults enough credit to be intellectually able to handle topics like those addressed in "The Giver" -- he LOVES to be able to discuss "deep stuff".

    I agree the ending is strange, enigmatic even. What does it mean? Did they survive-- I like to think they did. I have not yet read the sequel, so I don't know for sure. But look at it this way, the boy took a huge risk escaping with the infant -- but that infant would have faced certain death had he stayed. To me he's a hero for having made that choice, risking his own life too for what he believed in: namely that he could not be part of a society that chooses to pay for ultimate safety and order by giving up emotion (compassion, pain & suffering, love)...

  11. Spoiler alert: There are two sequels- you can buy the boxed set. They aren't really sequels, just set in the same world, but you see the two characters from here there and know they survive.
    Also, the author has said that she has found through feedback that this book works best 15 and up, although of course younger kids may also enjoy (mileage varies). If you had read it at the time (as I did) you would also have not known this and it depressed the hell out of me, as did her Number the Stars.

  12. I think the Newberry is overrated.

    Haven't read the Giver and, like Maven, I probably won't. I'd rather read Utopia to Mr. M when he's older. For now, Roald Dahl is doing the trick for the adult realism depictions.


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