Friday, July 05, 2024

How Not to Write a Series or {Put This One on Your TBR List} Book Review: The Giver Quartet by Lois Lowry, Part 1 by Karen S. Wiesner


How Not to Write a Series

or {Put This One on Your TBR List} Book Review:

The Giver Quartet by Lois Lowry, Part 1

by Karen S. Wiesner


Note: Be aware that there are spoilers for all the books in the series in this review that will span the next three weeks in order to give adequate summaries for all four titles along with in-depth individual and series reviews.

The Giver Quartet, young adult fiction, by Lois Lowry features various places in a dystopian world that would seem to have no connection save for the map provided in the slipcase of the hardcovers and also available online. That statement is a little bit of an exaggeration but not by much, as we'll see over the next three weeks.  

Book 1, The Giver, was published in 1993. Books 2-4 were released between 2000 and 2012. I actually read the first book three times over the course of 15-some years before I realized it was actually part of a series. I was in a bookstore in March of this year and saw the boxed set there. Because I do vividly recall being disappointed and stunned with the ending each time I read it, wishing there could be more closure, I bought it and started reading immediately. I also watched the movie at some vague point long ago. 

The Giver is a very slow, strange story about a 12-year-old boy named Jonas who lives in an equally strange world that initially seems like a utopian society. The author never gives any sort of timeline for the series, beyond that it's set in a future period and universe. It simply exists and no past events can root it in actual reality. The focus of the first book in the series is a town referred to as only "The Community" (on the map above, it's the northernmost left area). Here, the people are isolated and cut off from the rest of the world. In this place, pain and difficulties have virtually been eliminated, favoring "Sameness". Here, they lack color, climate changes, differing terrain, freedom, individuality, and, though a semblance of equality is maintained, certain members of society are nevertheless clearly more favored than others. What this means in practice is that the members are ruled by a body of elders who make all the decisions--like inflicting color blindness on everyone (on the map, this town is rendered in black and white for that reason), assigning everyone roles that have very definite consequences in their life quality, drugging them so they can't feel emotions or sexual desire and don't question the way things are and have to be, essentially quashing any considerations of rebellion or merely learning something beyond what they're allowed. 

Further, babies are genetically engineered, artificially inseminated into very young Birthmothers who aren't allowed to nurture or even know anything about their own offspring. Only children who thrive and are deemed able to contribute to society continue to exist. If they don't and aren't, they're "released". No one in this society, not even the nurturers, questions this. They don't realize they're actually killing the babies. In the same way, the old are released when their time comes, and everyone believes this is some kind of blessing for everyone (kind of like in the early dystopian fiction story, 1967's novel Logan's Run and the possibly better known film of the same name, where everyone who reaches the age of 21 or 30, depending on whether you're reading the book or watching the movie, is forced to participate in a ritual called Carousel, in which a pleasure-inducing toxic gas kills them). 

Life is peaceful in the Community, if a little boring and confining, for those who do what's expected of them. They live their lives in family groups consisting of a husband and wife who don't have sex, brought together through the Elder council's own form of online dating--science and proper matching lead to those who apply for a spouse finding exactly the right person to complement them. Later, the couple can apply for children--one girl and one boy. The children attend school until they reach the age of 12, when they're assigned what will become their life's work. 

During the annual Ceremony of Twelve--something that smacked of being pulled right out of the Divergent Series by Veronica Roth, but of course that has to be the other way around since the first book in Divergent came out in 2011--Jonas is singled out to become the next Receiver of Memory. While highest honor and responsibility are given with this role, the separation Jonas feels is profound. His trainer is called The Giver, and he's very old, the only person in the Community to have access to books about the past and cultural memories. He alone has carried this burden, as the one before him did, and as Jonas will now be required to do. The Giver councils the Elders on the past in order to better the Community and avoid the mistakes made before. The Giver transfers these colorful memories that were passed down to him from the previous Giver to Jonas. If a Giver leaves or is missing from the Community, all the memories would pass back to the people, which would disrupt everything, all semblance of life as they know it. (How does it work? I'm not really sure. It's stated as simple fact and never questioned nor explained.) 

As I said, this is a very slow story and it's told in an extremely passive tone (something that can be said of all the books in the series), which actually makes a lot of sense--at least in Book 1--because this society is very repressed. Since they feel little, they don't realize so many things they're doing are wrong, even horrifying. Only after Jonas is given the memories does he realize all the Community is missing--color, passion, the need to learn and grow and share memories. Only through these things can they truly connect with each other. 

Jonas also realizes at that time that the baby Gabe his nurturer father has been bringing home in order to help him thrive is being evaluated by the Elders. In other words, if Gabe doesn't soon prove he's worthy to join and contribute to their society, he'll be released--killed. There's a horrible scene in the book where Jonas watches his father murder a newborn baby--injecting him with a drug that kills him, putting the lifeless body in a box, and sending him off like dirty laundry all while being happy and not having the slightest clue what release actually means. Beware, those who are particularly sensitive, because that's disturbing in the extreme. Do I think it should have been left out? By no means. This story required it. Sometimes in life, even alternate life in fiction, cruel realities need to be described in order for the impact to be truly felt. In this case, it was the catalyst for Jonas to take drastic action to save a life he deemed worthwhile. The author did this as tastefully as possible. Be assured there was nothing gratuitous about the scene. 

It's at the end of this story that Jonas finally becomes fully aware of what's happening in this sterile place. Almost before the story has really begun, Jonas flees into "Elsewhere" (the dense, dangerous woods beyond the Community) with infant Gabe in order to save his life. The ending is shocking and abrupt, to say the least, and many of Lowry's fans assumed--like I did--that Jonas and Gabe died at the end of The Giver. While Lowry stated she's "always kind of surprised and disappointed" by that reaction, she found her own ending optimistic (because Jonas and Gabe happen upon a house with warm lights burning inside, the strains of music playing). 

Just to give you closure, I will tell you that at no point in the series do readers learn what happens to the Community. The overall tone of subsequent books in the series implies (to me anyway) that they just went on as they were, without the cultural memory returned to each of them, never enlightened about what they'd done and were doing wrong. When Jonas fled, The Giver, who'd simply gone along with the Elder's agenda for so many years, still held most of the memories and therefore would have had to train yet another Receiver of Memory. And that horrifying world just kept on spinning without change or salvation, maybe indefinitely. 

In other words, Jonas had been given the opportunity to save the entire community alongside the old Giver, as the two of them had planned before Gabe was sentenced to be released. They'd intended for The Giver to finish transferring the cultural memory to Jonas, then Jonas would leave the community, which would cause the memories to return to every individual. Instead, Jonas bravely, kindly chose to save Gabe alone. True, Jonas was little more than a child himself trapped in the heartless machinations of an adult world without pity or remorse, as was the helpless infant about to be killed simply because he made too many waves, required too much of the community to be left alive any longer. What a tragedy. 

I'm aware that Lowry's intention was to explore human connection and the power of memories with this story, which is admirable and well done, but I can't help wishing the author had been able to provide Jonas, undoubtedly the hero of the story, with more…more options, more power, more help from the old Giver and maybe others, more of anything that would have allowed him to change a system that had taken away everything that made life worth living. Above all, that's the story I wish I'd been told here. Instead, readers are left with the haunting reality of innocence and insight stolen willfully by selfish elders from generations of blind people in this community; with the old Giver too broken and weakened by the knowledge he alone carries to do what has to be done to save them; and with two children--Jonas and Gabe--who escape and survive but essentially abandon their own society for all time to short-sighted leaders. I can't be the only one who finds it hard to read a story in which there is and can be no victory; worse, in which there is no hope. Readers are merely shown cold, hard facts about a wheel that will keep on turning perpetually because there's no one powerful and selfless enough to break the pattern. 

Next week, I'll continue this article with summaries of Books 2-4 of The Giver Quartet. 

Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.

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