A book review for parents
This science fiction/fantasy, coming-of-age book by Lois Lowry is published by Delacorte Books for Young Readers as a paperback and Dell Laurel-Leaf as a mass market book. Both are imprints of Random House Children's Books, a division of Random House, Inc. The hardback book is printed by Walter Lorraine Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin. The book is written for kids ages 12 and up. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
Twelve-year-old Jonas lives in a nearly perfect community. Every family has two children, one boy and one girl. They share their feelings together each morning and each night. When the old tire of life, infants fail to thrive or someone doesn't fit in, they're simply "released" to a place known as Elsewhere. Rarely does anyone suffer or die.
The community Elders spend years observing the children to ensure each receives a vocation matching his or her aptitude. At an annual ceremony, 12-year-olds are assigned their careers. When the officiating Elder fails to call Jonas' name at his ceremony, he fears he's done something wrong. The Elders have saved his assignment for last because of its significance. He will be trained for a rare, honored and secretive position called the Receiver of Memory. He's unnerved to learn the position will involve pain and isolation, and troubled to hear that the last person selected for the position 10 years earlier "failed" at her task and mysteriously disappeared.
Jonas meets with his new mentor, a man he calls The Giver. Jonas will take all of the older man's memories — some of which were given to him by a predecessor — and preserve these truths and experiences about which the rest of the community is oblivious. The Giver transfers his memories to Jonas by touching the boy's bare back. Jonas is thrilled to discover feelings and objects he's never known. The Giver allows him to feel snow as he speeds downhill on a sled and the warmth of sunlight on his face. Jonas also begins to "see beyond" what his community has been genetically engineered not to see. He discovers color and begins to question why his neighbors aren't given the choice to see color. He convinces himself that, given too many choices, people would make the wrong ones and disaster would follow.
The more Jonas understands about objects and ideas others can't see, the more isolated he feels from his community. He begins to understand why The Giver is so tired, weighed down with difficult concepts he's forbidden to share. When Jonas asks why they must retain these painful memories, The Giver explains that memories are the key to wisdom. The Elders don't consult The Giver as often as he feels they should, but when they do, he's able to recall tragedies of the past and steer the leaders in the right direction.
Jonas' father, a Nurturer who works with newborns, brings home a failure-to-thrive baby named Gabriel. He hopes the extra attention will help the infant. If Gabriel doesn't improve, he will be released. Gabriel continues to sleep poorly, so Jonas offers to keep him in his room. When the baby fusses at night, Jonas secretly shares comforting memories that The Giver has passed on to him. These memories help Gabriel sleep soundly and begin to improve.
The Giver continues to share memories, both of intense pain — like war — and amazing warmth, which The Giver calls "love." Jonas tries to convince himself a world with love would be dangerous, but he begins to believe it might be worth the risk. Jonas learns more about the previous failed Receiver of Memory. The Giver, who deeply loved his protégée, says she could not handle all of the painful memories, and she requested release. She even asked to perform the release herself. The memories she had already assimilated re-entered the community, causing chaos.
Jonas asks what happens when someone is released. The Giver allows him to watch a tape of the release Jonas's father performed earlier that day. Jonas is stunned as he watches his father euthanize an infant and throw away the body. Jonas tells The Giver he wants to leave the community. The Giver agrees to help him, believing it may be good for the sheltered citizens to have Jonas' feelings and memories thrust into their world. He refuses to escape with Jonas, saying he should stay behind to help people deal with their newfound emotions.
Jonas's father says Gabriel is failing to sleep back at the nurturing facility, so he will soon be released. Jonas kidnaps Gabriel and leaves the community, sleeping and hiding by day and biking briskly by night. Eventually, people stop searching for them. He and Gabriel find themselves in a new landscape, which includes hills and animals and snow. But their food has run out, and their bodies are cold. Jonas no longer cares about himself. He believes his power is gone, as he can no longer call up warm memories to give the baby. In a cryptic conclusion, Jonas and Gabriel slide downhill on a sled, seeing lights and hearing music. It is unclear whether they survive or die of hypothermia.
Elders oversee Jonas's community, maintaining a strict system of rules and discipline while allowing for friendliness and levity among the people. The rules aren't particularly difficult to enforce because people have been genetically stripped of memories and abilities to see color, hear music or feel emotion. The Giver loves Jonas. He tries to temper the painful memories he must convey with joyful ones. His memories and wisdom have taught him about intense feeling, and he wants to share these things with the community even if it comes at a price. Jonas' parents are kind and pleasant, effectively carrying out their vocational and parenting responsibilities. Even as Jonas' father lethally injects a child and prepares to do the same to Gabriel, his tone is gentle and playful. Because he is "programmed" not to know love or emotion, his actions are not calloused or cold-blooded. He feels he is just doing his job.
The creators of Jonas' community implemented a climate control system and revised the landscape to optimize it. As such, those in the community have never seen animals (those depicted in their "comfort objects") or hills, snow or sunshine. Jonas is shocked to see books in The Giver's home. The only books Jonas knew existed were dictionaries and books about the community's rules and offices.
Other Belief Systems
Jonas's society is founded on the belief that a community will be happy, functioning and fulfilled if it is able to jettison deep emotions, such as love and pain. Rules, rituals and order reign supreme, creating a "Sameness." In this way, no one has to experience prejudice, injustice or insecurity.
Families are required to share their feelings with one another each night and their dreams each morning. Otherwise, people keep their thoughts to themselves, lest they say anything that makes someone else feel uncomfortable or different.
The entire community attends an annual two-day ceremony where children in each age group are promoted. For example, becoming a Seven (year-old) means getting a front-buttoning jacket so the child can learn independence. Eights relinquish their stuffed animal (called a "comfort object") to be recycled to younger children. Nines are further allowed to demonstrate and develop their maturity by getting their first bikes. Twelves, which was Jonas' group, receive their vocational assignments.
The community creates the family. People apply for spouses and are matched based on a number of attributes. Those who fail to demonstrate the appropriate ability to connect are not given spouses. After three years of marriage, a couple can apply for children. Each family may receive one girl and one boy. When children are Ones, they are given to families at the community ceremony. The vocation of Birthmother is viewed as vital but not prestigious. Birthmothers are given excellent food and care until they've borne three children. Then they spend the remainder of their adult life as laborers. When a couple's children are grown and the parents are no longer needed to create family units, they go to live with the Childless Adults. When they've aged further, they're well cared for and respected as they finish out their lives at the House of the Old. Once children become adults with families of their own, they cease to have contact with their parents altogether because that bond is no longer necessary.
Jonas' friend Asher used to mix up his words as a 3-year-old. He was subject to increasingly intense lashings until he finally stopped talking altogether. An Elder speaks of this situation fondly at the community ceremony, beaming because Asher now speaks and is a productive member of society. She indicates the punishment had obviously been effective. When Fiona begins her formal training with the elderly, she notes off-handedly that the old, similar to the children, are punished with a disciplinary wand. Each home has a speaker box that conveys community news and can also monitor the activity inside each dwelling.
Except in the rare event of an accident, no one in the community dies. They are "released" into "Elsewhere." After more than a year with The Giver, Jonas learns that to "release" someone is to kill the person through lethal injection. Most people never learn this. The elderly are given a celebration of life ceremony before they are led through a door leading to Elsewhere. When a set of twins is placed in the care of Jonas's father, his father decides by their birth weights which will be allowed to join the community and which will be released. (Jonas's family notes that they certainly can't have two people who look alike running around. How confusing would that be?) Those who fail to follow community rules are sent Elsewhere in disgrace. One family whose child drowns is presented a new one. The new child receives the same name, so it is "as though the first child were returning." Names are chanted in ceremonies both to release and to welcome new community members.
The Giver conveys a memory of an elephant being shot by poachers. A second elephant hovers over the mutilated body, trumpeting its grief. In another memory, Jonas bleeds and vomits on a scary sled ride, and in another, he sees bloodshed and death as men and boys suffer on a battlefield. Jonas' father punctures a newborn in the top of the forehead with a syringe full of lethal fluid. He talks to the crying baby, gently saying he knows it hurts. Then he nonchalantly wraps up the dead child and puts him in a trash bin.
Jonas tells his family about a dream where he longs to have his classmate, Fiona, take her clothes off so he can bathe her. His mother calmly explains that these Stirrings are normal. Now he will begin taking pills that make the Stirrings go away as the other adults in the community do. After The Giver helps him know what love feels like, Jonas stops taking the pills.
Boston Globe-Horn Honor Book, 1993; Newbery Medal Winner, 1994; Margaret A. Edwards Award, 2007
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- What would it be like to live in a perfect community?
What would make our world perfect?
What would make your life perfect?
- What was good about Jonas' community, family and life?
What would you have disliked if you were in his situation?
- How is Jonas' community sheltered from dealing with death?
What happens to people who are "released"?
What kind of people are released?
How did you feel when you read about people being killed this way?
How does this practice align with your views on life and death?
What does the Bible say about the value of human life?
- Why does Jonas think the kind of love people once experienced must have been dangerous?
How is a world without love dangerous?
- Why do you think the author wrote a book without telling you exactly what happened in the end?
What do you think happens to Jonas and Gabriel?
How would you have ended the book if you were the author?
- What does The Giver mean when he tells Jonas that everything is meaningless without memories?
What would the world be like if people could only remember back as far as the years they personally had lived?
How does remembering make us wise?
Why is wisdom sometimes painful?
- Imagine you knew and remembered things no one else could.
What would it be like?
How would you feel?
What would you say to others? What if you were sworn to secrecy about your unique knowledge?
According to the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, The Giver was one of the most frequently challenged books from 1990-2000. Some parents have expressed concerns about age-inappropriate content for middle school students, including occultist themes and violence, sexually explicit material and the ideas of drug use, suicide and euthanasia.
Nudity: Jonas and other young volunteers bathe the elderly in the House of the Old. People are forbidden to look at others naked, but this rule doesn't apply with infants or the elderly.
Lying: When Jonas receives his vocational instructions, he's shocked to learn he has permission to lie. He wonders if others have the same permission. Later, when he sees his father euthanize a baby, he realizes his father has lied by telling Jonas that babies are sent Elsewhere. Jonas lies to his parents as he prepares to leave the community.
Suicide: When Rosemary, the failed Receiver of Memory before Jonas, seeks release, she asks to inject the needle into herself.
Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. A book's inclusion does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.