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The Giver: A Simple, Cozy Dystopia
Response to Jeremiah's review
Another blogger I know and follow, Jeremiah (@ We Are Not Saved), posts every month short reviews of all the books he finished that month. Last month, he mentioned The Giver by Lois Lowry, and gave it a negative review.
I know that book well, and I think it’s a better-done book than he makes it out to be. I’d like to respond to his review and give my own more positive review of the book.
The Giver is a YA dystopia. But it's not like Hunger Games or any of the books that've followed in its wake. It's a simpler story for younger readers, about a more cozy dystopia that masquerades as a utopia vaguely patterned after late-twentieth-century suburban America. Our protagonist is a twelve-year-old named Jonas, whom the shadowy Community leaders have selected to apprentice to the Receiver of Memory.
As the coming Receiver of Memory, Jonas receives into his mind memories of the past before this Community was set up - suffering and violence, but also beauty and joy. He gets them mind-to-mind from the old Receiver. The method isn't explained. If it's magic, it's the only magic in the book without a technobabble explanation - though there're other points of the Community that are clearly impossible technologically. Be that as it may, these memories open Jonas's mind to the shortcomings of the Community, and eventually he leaves in a way that (thanks to this maybe-magic) will potentially destroy the Community.
If you called this a paint-by-numbers dystopia, you wouldn't be wrong. So many tropes are here, and our initially-naive protagonist walks through seeing all of them before finally deciding to do something and leaving.
Jeremiah says that dystopias like this "overlook... the banality of evil in favor of flashy sin", and indeed at least one secret flashy evil is revealed to be present. But in fact, I'd say this book as a whole shows the banality of evil even more than many other YA dystopias. At the start, this Community looks like a utopia. We don't get visible oppression and poverty (unlike Hunger Games) or obvious class stratification (unlike Divergent). Instead, we get Sameness. Most of the evils there are denials, to keep up this seemingly utopian existence. The one flashy exception - perhaps put there to wake up any young readers who've overlooked the rest - doesn't negate the rest of the problems.
Is the Community fragile? Well, is the world of other teen dystopias fragile? Could the Hunger Games and the single-industry Districts really have gone on for seventy-six years, could the class system of Divergent really have lasted... I could suspend my disbelief there, and I can suspend it here much more readily because the Community actually does give its residents a pleasant existence. What's more, it's the sort of pleasant existence that, in the real world, many people have sacrificed much to achieve. Their one major vulnerability (except for maybe whoever sent that one plane) is the Receiver of Memory; as long as they didn't select anyone like Jonas, they'd be fine.
Jeremiah isn't wrong to call the Receiving of Memories allegory. It clearly is an allegory for other ways of denying information about the past and the outside, and the ending does in fact make total sense if it's read as this allegory. But if you accept the magic, it also makes sense on the literal level. And if you don't suspend your disbelief in the magic, next to none of the story makes sense on the literal level. Jonas's magical Receiving of Memories is the central arc of the story; every step of his entire character journey depends on it.
So, I disagree with Jeremiah and say the ending of the story works. The mechanism could have been better explained, but I like plot-relevant magic being explained - and Lowri clearly doesn't like it, since she hardly ever explains any magic in this or any other books of hers. The ending is no more allegory than most other parts of the book, and it completes Jonas's emotional and moral character arc.
If it leaves the aftermath open - well, that fits with the message of the book. When I first read it as a kid, I was frustrated with the open ending too, but now I realize nothing else could fit so well. It's the dystopian Community who wanted to make everything predictable, and they did it by limiting people's passions and choices. Of course undoing their work would make things unpredictable. What comes next would be another, much larger, story.