Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Rereading Mission, Round 1: THE GIVER by Lois Lowry

A few weeks ago I decided it would be cool if I reread some important books from my childhood and blogged about the experience. And then I invited you to do it, too! No worries: if you couldn't participate this month, I'll be doing it next month on September 13th. And if you did participate, leave a link in the comments, or email it to me, and I'll add the link to this post.

(Also: all images in this post link back to their original source if you click them.)

(And: this post contains spoilers about THE GIVER.)

Summary (from the back of the book): Jonas's world is perfect. Everything is under control. There is no war or fear or pain. There are no choices. Every person is assigned a role in the Community.

When Jonas turns twelve he is singled out to receive special training from The Giver. The Giver alone holds the memories of the true pain and pleasure of life. Now it's time for Jonas to receive the truth. There is no turning back.

I first read this book in fifth grade, during our "what is a utopia?" unit. The assignment associated with it was to create our own utopias; to figure out how we would form the world if we intended to form it perfectly. The consequence of that assignment, for me, was to realize that I could not form a perfect world on paper, no matter how hard I tried.

So eleven years later, I decided to form an imperfect one on paper.

I don't think I need to dwell on the lasting impact this book has had on my writing life. Suffice it to say that THE GIVER was my first taste of what was possible for me as a writer: I could write about a disturbing world that did not yet exist. So: THE GIVER is important to me.

I found this book disturbing the first time I read it, for obvious reasons. Basically: the whole "let's euthanize old people and twins, but lie to everyone and say we're just sending them outside the community!" thing. But more than that is the chipper attitude with which the people who do the euthanizing talk about it. Jonas's dad is like "cootchie cootchie coo, if you don't learn how to sleep through the night, we are so going to murder you, yes we are, snookums!" to the baby they temporarily adopt into their family. This bothered me as a ten year old, and it disgusted me now.

Yes, that about summarizes my rereading experience. I comprehended, at the age of ten, a lot that this book was saying. But I did not understand its full weight until now.

I have a scene that will illustrate this. I didn't even really register this scene when I was young, I think because I was so desperate to finish the book that I breezed through a lot of it. But I actually teared up in LAX at gate G29 (or wherever I was) as I was reading it this time. Here, have a look:

He made himself say the words, though he felt flushed with embarrassment. He had rehearsed them in his mind all the way home from the Annex.

“Do you love me?”

There was an awkward silence for a moment. Then Father gave a little chuckle. “Jonas. You, of all people. Precision of language, please!”

“What do you mean?” Jonas asked. Amusement was not at all what he had anticipated.

“Your father means that you used a very generalized word, so meaningless it’s become almost obsolete,” his mother explained carefully.

Jonas stared at them. Meaningless? He had never before felt anything as meaningful as the memory.

“And of course our community can’t function smoothly if people don’t use precise language. You could ask, ‘Do you enjoy me?’ The answer is ‘Yes,’” his mother said.

“Or,” his father suggested, “‘Do you take pride in my accomplishments?’ And the answer is wholeheartedly ‘Yes.’”

“Do you understand why it’s inappropriate to use a word like ‘love’?” Mother asked.

Jonas nodded. “Yes, thank you, I do,” he replied slowly.

It was his first lie to his parents.

(Lois Lowry, The Giver, page 127)

As a child, I thought: Why can't they understand what he means? But surely they love him, they just don't get it.

As an adult, I thought: these people have been so warped by the society that surrounds them that they can no longer experience love. Even the mild impressions of love they are able to convey are entirely egocentric, based on what their son does for them rather than who he is.

Yeah, it's much more upsetting now.

This has led me to several conclusions. The first is that what I appreciate in this book now, I have always appreciated, but it was on some undeveloped, almost visceral level, the only level at which I could experience it as a child. And I am so glad that I had people in my life who let me read things that bothered and disturbed me, because at that age, I was still figuring out who I was, and it was only by reading about things that I knew were wrong that I was able to isolate what I thought was right.

The second is that really now, really really, anyone who says that books for young readers are not worth reading because they lack nuances or don't require as much deep thought in order to comprehend them or whatever, can just kiss my pale butt. Also, they aren't reading the right books. I had to grow up and "become an adult" (whatever that means) to appreciate how heart-rending this book is.

I mean: it isn't perfect. Another thing I realized while rereading was that it was flawed, something I didn't pick up on when I was younger. And that is deeply encouraging. Even this book, which stuck with me for over a decade, which was so memorable that I continually felt compelled to read it again, which helped me develop as a writer, is not perfect; therefore my work doesn't have to be perfect in order to be powerful. And let's hope it is that, even if it never compares to THE GIVER.

THE GIVER, I can't forget you. You remind me of colby jack and cracker sandwiches in the dilapidated mobile classrooms behind Grove Avenue Elementary School. And Ms. Gill, who put up with my incredibly moody and generally looney tunes childhood self for two years. TWO. And somehow managed not to throw heavy objects at my head. You made me realize that sometimes life is painful, but having pain is better than having nothing at all. You made me realize that life is valuable even if it's imperfect, and that people should never be discarded. And I still need to learn those lessons. I need to learn them over and over again.

Other Rereaders:
(Aka: people currently made of awesome.)

Sarah Enni-- A Wrinkle In Time
Michelle Hodkin-- 99 Fear Street: The House of Evil-- The First Horror

Aunt Feather-- The Hundred Dresses


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