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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Review: The Giver Quartet by Lois Lowry

Lois Lowry's The Giver has long been one of my favorite books. I read it during the greatest reading year of my life – the fifth grade. I was a reader before fifth grade, but the books I read that year and my amazing teacher really opened me up to what books could be. You know, beyond The Boxcar Children. I reread The Giver and its sequels in anticipation of Lowry's conclusion to the Quartet, Son. I've probably read The Giver four or five times (and it amazes me each time), but this was my first encounter with the other books of the series.

The Giver is the story of Jonas who lives in a Community where he never has to make any decisions and all responsibilities are assigned. Everything is orderly and controlled – perfect. Until Jonas is assigned the role of Receiver, the one person who holds the Community's collected memories of true pleasure and pain. Once he realizes what life can be and the mockery of life that the leaders of the Community have created Jonas risks everything to save those he has just learned to love. I have never quite been able to put my finger on what it is that makes The Giver so powerful. Is it the warning Lowry gives us? Is it that this book was my first real brush with the darkness of the world that can lie just beneath the surface? To this day I can't be sure. What I do know is that this novel amazed me as a kid and it continues to do so to this day.

Reading Gathering Blue and Messenger for the first time as an adult took away something of their power. I hate to say it that way because the books are still great and worth reading, but I can only imagine how moved I would have been to encounter Kira, the heroine of Gathering Blue, as a preteen. Kira, a physically disabled orphan living in a cruel and medieval world. Seriously, medieval. There is no electricity, plumbing, or running water. Brute strength is favored above all. It is a fallen world and in the beginning I interpreted this fallen state as a consequence to Jonas' actions in The Giver. It turns out I was wrong and Kira's world in Gathering Blue is close in both proximity and time to that of The Giver. Looking at the communities side by side is a fascinating comparison. Jonas' world is made up of secrets and order – the horrible lengths to which the leaders and citizens of the Community will go to keep everything uniform and perfect are hidden. The suspense comes from and unknown menace as the reader is slowly shown how bad things are. In Kira's world the horrors are more outright. She lives in a place where there is never quite enough to go around and the weak are cast aside. Both stories are about conforming to
the norm and what happens when you can no longer conform. 
Messenger is my least favorite book in the series. The menace in this story is supernatural rather than human and it just doesn't pack the same punch. Messenger takes the theme of conformity from the first two books and spins it in a different direction. Instead of taking place in a society that enforces conformity, the novel creates a world that celebrates difference. It is an outside force that causes strife in the village and because of it Lowry's message was not as strong.

Son is the conclusion to the series, the final book in the quartet, and it is a much more adult novel. Son puts us back in the Community of The Giver at the same time that the events of Jonas' tale are taking place. This is the story of Claire, a birthmother in the Community and her search for her son. Each of the books is about love in some way, but Son anchors the series in love by telling the story of a bond that cannot be broken by time or distance. Son is not exactly the conclusion I wanted for the series, but it feels like the book Lowry needed to write about the loss of her own son.
Lois Lowry is my favorite type of children's writer. She trusts children to think for themselves and come to their own conclusions and, more importantly, she trusts them with the truth. There is no sugar coating here. These books are raw and honest and that is why kids respond to them. It is certainly why I did.

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