Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Giver

Lowry, Lois. 1993. The Giver. New York: Random House Audio. ISBN 0807286095.

Plot Summary:
Jonas is about to turn twelve years old - an age of importance and responsibility. At a special ceremony, he will receive his role for life in this futuristic community where discomfort, want, and uncertainty are unknown. But Jonas does not receive the duty that he expected. He is apprenticed to "The Giver," and his life and that of his community's may never be the same.

Critical Analysis:
This unabridged audio book version of The Giver consists of four CDs that run for a total of 4 hours and 47 minutes. The reader is Broadway actor, movie star, and television actor Ron Rifkin. Rifkin is the only reader, although background instrumental music is played to underscore important scenes. The packaging claims the book to be appropriate for ages 10 and up.

Rifkin did a wonderful job of giving voice to Lois Lowry's story narration and the male characters of the story. His portrayal of female dialogue, however, was not believable, particulary his impersonation of Jonas's younger sister, Lily. In spite of this shortcoming, the audio version of the book was engaging and moved along quickly enough to keep a listener interested. The use of orchestral music to highlight pivotal events was overkill, however, younger listeners might possibly need such a clue.

The Giver is a futuristic fiction tale that is suitable for classification as a YA or juvenile novel. It takes place in what initially appears to be a future utopian community, free of want, need, and uncertainty. It is a community where "preciseness of speech is required" ("starving" is not acceptable because "hungry" is more precise), a community where children are rationed and assigned to households (no more than fifty new children per year and no more than two per household), a community where each person has an assigned duty (food-bringer, nurturer, birth mother), a community where a faceless voice from a speaker issues orders and public chastisement. Finally, it is a community where those who do not conform are "released." The sterility of the setting and the preciseness and blandness of the characters' dialogue add realism to the stark world of "the community." Rifkin employs a calm and almost monotonous tone to add to the colorless world of the community.

The protagonist is Jonas, a young boy about to "come of age" at twelve. Until the age of twelve, birthdays of those in the community are celebrated "en masse," every December "ones" become "twos," "threes become fours," etc. At the significant "twelve" ceremony, children are given their assignment, their life's duty for the benefit of the community. In a world where there should be no fear, no uncertaintly, no individuality, Jonas is nonetheless uneasy. What will his duty be? Why does he notice things that others do not? Readers will relate to Jonas as his innermost thoughts are revealed through narration. The contrast between Jonas and the rest of the community will unnerve the listener as well. Listeners will identify with Jonas and feel his unease in the sterility of his world.

His assignment does not answer his questions. It merely poses more. Jonas is assigned to be "The Receiver." He must work with the elderly "Giver" to receive all of the memories and experiences outside the realm of the here and now. He may share his knowledge and experiences with no one. From "The Giver" he learns of color,of music, of cold, of hot, of sunshine and of snow. He also experiences the memories of sickness, of pain, of war, and of death. And he learns what it means to be "released" from the community. Jonas must reconcile the knowledge of what is possible in a free society with the consequences of those freedoms. Is it better to live in peace, safety, and health than to experience love, music, color, and freedom along with pain, sickness, war, and misery?

Jonas makes his choice, and the listener is left to wonder what the final consequences will be.

The ending is unresolved and somewhat symbolic. Jonas, carrying "newchild" Gabriel before him, arrives in a place outside the community on a snowy December day. He can hear music. He sees colored lights and a decorated tree. Is Gabriel symbolic of Jesus? Is Gabriel carried in front because he is like the biblical herald, heralding the arrival of the savior? Will Jonas be the savior of the community? Or has Jonas simply escaped with Gabriel? The listener is left with a hopeful, yet undetermined ending.

From ages ten to adult, this book will not leave the listener unaffected. It is sure to provoke discussion about the consequences of free choice and the very nature of society. This Newbery winner is a perennial favorite for all ages.

Review Excerpts:
"The story is skillfully written; the air of disquiet is delicately insinuated. And the theme of balancing the values of freedom and security is beautifully presented," writes Ann A. Flowers in the Jul/Aug 1993 Horn Book Magazine.

Amy Kellman writes, "This tightly plotted story and its believable characters will stay with readers for a long time." (School Library Journal May 1993)

Lois Lowry has a website for children that is a wonderful resource. It contains a bibliography of Lowry's books, FAQs, biographical information and more.

Read Lowry's two later books, Gathering Blue and The Messenger. Together with The Giver, they create a futuristic trilogy. The character of Jonas returns in The Messenger.

Before reading the sequel, have students resolve The Giver's ending.

For another thought-provoking futuristic tale, suggest
Z for Zachariah by Robert O'Brien

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