Wednesday, May 21, 2014

What The Giver Gives Us

Reflection on Lois Lowry, The Giver (New York: Laurel Leaf Books, 2002). Originally published 1993.

When a fellow teacher put a copy of The Giver in my hands a few years after its publication, I made the mistake of quitting too early.   Another dystopian fantasy, I thought, in flat prose, literally colorless.  

This month, when my class and I reached page 60, we tried to infer what principle lies behind the rules created for "the community."  Some suggested that the rules are all about preventing pain.  One girl had a deeper insight: "They prevent love."  She goes to the root of it.  Since pain comes from losing that to which we feel attached, the "Elders" enforce detachment.  Family units, names, playthings, clothing, careers -- all are chosen by a committee, and all are taken away on a strict schedule.

But, in our country where attachments are promoted and celebrated 24/7,  what in Lowry's bland dystopia resonates with young adults?

The first hint, for me, is Lowry's special effect, a few pages after 60.  When "The Giver" transmits memory from "back and back and back" to our young protagonist Jonas through some extra-sensory magic, we get our first mention of color, along with sensations of coldness and snow.  Lowry has deprived us of description so long that even this little bit has high impact.  It's relief.  Soon, she hits us with graphic descriptions of intense emotional pain that hurt me to read.

Finally, Jonas finds the word for what his life has been missing:  depth.
[N]ow he saw the familiar wide river beside the path differently.  He saw all of the light and color and history it contained and carried in its slow-moving water; and he knew that there was an Elsewhere from which it came, and an Elsewhere to which it was going.   (131)
Swathed in color, light, recorded sound and "activities" that all conspire to keep us moving forward always to the next thing, we Americans may very well lack depth. My students have long scoffed at the printed page as a boring, time-wasting, old-fashioned alternative to images. "Don't Know Much About History" could be the National Anthem.

But  Lowry makes her readers aware of what comes to them in her book through words and imagination.  When Jonas receives a memory via telepathy, we readers receive it too, through the old-fashioned magic of words. 

At the same time, she dramatizes the shallow quality of life among Jonas's insouciant family and friends.  Lowry gives us all a glimpse of what we miss when we live solely on the surface of day to day, without searching, reflecting, critiquing, comparing.....

How many of my students, and how many of their parents (of my generation) know that the real aim of education is to bring depth to all experience?   It's not something discussed when I hear politicians and educators speaking about school reform, testing, and "common core" curriculum. 

I don't see any signs of a "communist" takeover in America.   But the Shallowing of Experience has been well under way for a long time. 

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