Since I’ve been off the radar for a week, I feel that I must make up for it by giving you some bang for your blogging buck. Today, I want to talk about a series of books I recently finished, the so-called The Giver Quartet, by Lois Lowry. Four book reviews for the price of one!
I get the sense that most Americans my age read Lowry’s The Giver (1993) at some point in elementary or middle school. It’s the story of a twelve-year-old boy, Jonas, who lives in a planned community in which emotions — both painful and joyful — have been carefully erased from the populace’s experience. The Giver traces Jonas’s awakening to the fact that his society, rather than being pleasant and harmonious, is, in fact, monstrous. In case you haven’t read it, I won’t spoil the plot, but it’s moving and simple and lovely and, I think, a thought-provoking book for young readers (although I’ve re-read it several times in adulthood).
Lowry also wrote three companion books to The Giver: Gathering Blue (2000), The Messenger (2004), and Son (2012). I don’t know how on Earth the existence of these books escaped my notice, but I didn’t learn about them until right before I moved to South Africa (I think because I read this review of Son in the New York Times). I downloaded all three new books on my Kindle immediately and devoured them each in a few days once I got to Joburg.
Rather than giving away the plots of all three of these books, I want to talk more generally about what I enjoy about Lowry’s writing, both as a writer and a reader, and why I think these books are excellent reading material for both children and adults.
First, Lowry has a gift for writing simply. Reading her books, I’m reminded that to be a good writer, one doesn’t need to crowd the page with adjectives. Sometimes her simplest passages are the most moving. For example, I loved this really simple but evocative passage from Son, her final book in the series:
Alys and Old Benedikt stood watching the preparations for the marriage of Glenys and Martyn. Friends of the couple had built a kind of bower from supple willow branches and now they were decorating it with blossoms and ferns. Beyond, on tables made of board and set outside for the occasion, the women were arranging food and drink.
“It’s a fine day,” Alys commented, squinting at the cloudless sky.
“I was wed in rain,” Old Benedikt said with a chuckle, “and never noticed a drop of it.”
She smiled at him. “I remember your wedding day,” she said. “And Ailish, all smiles. You must miss her, Ben.”
He nodded. His wife of many years had died from a sudden fever the winter before, with their children and grandchildren watching in sorrow. She was buried now in the village graveyard with a small stone marking her place, and room beside her for Old Benedikt when his time came.
Lowry’s pared down language leaves room for emotion and feeling to shine through, unadulterated by too much fluff. I’m sure part of the reason that Lowry writes this way is because she’s producing children’s literature, but I appreciate it nonetheless, especially because I’m currently reading a book — The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst — with the kind of absolutely opulent language that makes me worry that my writing will never amount to anything.
Another thing I appreciate about The Giver quartet is that they present several visions of societies that have somehow gone wrong, but which are ultimately solved by human compassion. Sometimes Lowry beats us over the head with the theme a bit – in The Messenger, for instance, a once welcoming community of misfits who were exiled from other societies gradually turns xenophobic and insists on closing off the borders to the village, which results in the surrounding forest becoming evil and devouring those who try to enter or leave. Okay, we get it, Ms. Lowry, this is an allegory for the United States. Closed borders, evil forest, got it — xenophobia’s bad. Again, though, these are kids’ books, and considering their target audience, they’re remarkably subtle.
I generally find the idea of societies gone wrong interesting — and as the NY Times’ Robin Wasserman points out, Lowry was doing dystopia before it was cool. The difference between The Giver and, say, The Hunger Games, though, is that there’s an underlying lesson about humanity with The Giver that is much more nuanced and realistic than anything offered by Suzanne Collins. The society in The Hunger Games went wrong because — well, we’re not sure. There was a war, and then an oppressive, totalitarian regime took over, leaving some in poverty and others fabulously wealthy. Although the government produces official propaganda intended to convince the oppressed that this arrangement is, in fact, for their own good, no one really buys it. People are poor and miserable. That vision of a dystopian society, as horrible as it may be, is much less insidious than the world that’s presented in The Giver and Son, both of which take place in a peaceful society in which people believe that they’re happy, because they’re unaware of the range of human emotions that their community planners have chosen to cut out of daily life. As Jonas and Claire (the protagonist of Son) begin to awaken to the possibilities of feeling, they have to make complicated choices about what they want their lives to look like — peaceful and undisturbed by feelings, or messy but rich with emotion. Unlike the choice faced by Katniss Everdeen — do I kill this other child or not? — Lowry presents moral dilemmas that readers might actually recognize from real life.
Knowing some of Lois Lowry’s backstory makes these books all the more poignant: her son Grey, a fighter pilot in the Air Force, was killed when his warplane crashed in 1995. Lowry’s bio says of her son’s death:
His death in the cockpit of a warplane left a little girl fatherless and tore away a piece of my world. But it left me, too, with a wish to honor him by joining the many others trying to find a way to end conflict on this very fragile earth.
I think Ms. Lowry can be forgiven for overdoing a tad it on the moral storytelling she does in her books – this stuff really matters to her. And her stories are beautiful. I know when I have kids, I’ll be reading them The Giver quartet – and I might be re-reading them again before that.