Lois Lowry’s dystopian novel was awarded the John Newberry Medal for outstanding children’s literature, though I found it too uneventful and dark for my 11 year old daughter, even after we agreed to add it to our summer family reading list.
The Giver reminded me of other dystopian books, like A Brave New World, 1984, and The Hunger Games, but mostly of Kazuo Ishiguro’s superb heart-wrencher, Never Let Me Go. Unlike The Hunger Games, it starts off slowly and uneventfully. All of the dialogue is stilted and unnatural, and there is quite a bit of exposition, which made me think the writing was amateurish. It is also quite dry, but that simplicity makes it easy to read. In fact, I got through about 120 pages in a day. This is the only aspect that is apt for kids.
At first, Lowry’s community comes across as a kind of utopia, devoid of violence, hunger, or suffering of any kind, though I was immediately struck by something being not-quite-right, which becomes increasingly unnerving the further you get into it. I couldn’t help but feel I’d rather be dropped anywhere else, the maze in the Maze Runner, or even Harrenhal. By the halfway mark, I genuinely hated the world of The Giver, and what at first looked like a flaw in Lowry’s writing, you come to understand is intentional. The people talk unnaturally because they are anything but natural.
While it’s hard to criticize a book that keeps your eyes glued to the page, I often found myself asking why. How does it manage to grip me, when all of the characters, including Jonas, the protagonist, are flat and uninteresting? The setting is unimaginative, even for a dystopian novel, and very little happens. Lowry does, however, tackle some deep philosophical and sociological issues, though what, exactly, she is trying to convey is hard to determine. Much of The Giver deals with issues of individuality and freedom and security, and the interplay between them. Is it better, for instance, to surrender emotions like love, if you could also rid the world of hate? Is it worth giving up choice, where we go to school, who we marry, what we choose to do for a career, if we can end poverty and hunger and war? It’s pretty heady stuff, and a bit too much, I feel, for younger readers, but not quite as impactful as A Brave New World. There are moments when Lowry tugs at the heartstrings, but I was never so moved as I was by Never Let Me Go, which dealt with many of the same subjects, but in a subtler and more poignant way.
Hills? Snow? Colors? Music? Abortion? Check out the podcast below, where my wife and I delve deep into these topics (with spoilers!) in The Giver.