THE GIVER by Lois Lowry. 1993, 208 pages. Hough-ton Mifflin, $14.95. Winner of the 1994 Newbery Award.
Everything in the community has a function with specific rules, laws and utility. There is no war, decision or poverty. Hardships or personal trials are nonexistent. Everyone has a job and is trained since childhood to do it. Some people grow the food, others deliver it to the table. There are those whose role is to give birth; others are in charge of law or medicine. There are assignments to feed the family units (each with only two children). Jonas' father is Nurturer at the child-care center, and his mother serves in the Department of Justice.The children are taught to be models of decorum - talking precisely, asking for immediate apologies for small indiscretions and taking a pill that will quiet the "stirrings" manifest in the growing bodies. Above all they are to share their nightly dreams, be polite and never lie.
At the annual Ceremony of Twelve, Jonas and his friends are to be assigned their training for life. Fiona is named Caretaker of the Old, Asher is placed as Assistant Director of Recreation. But Jonas is skipped over by the chief elder as the assignments are announced. At the end of the ceremony he is selected as the Receiver of Memory, a prestigious position whose task is to collect all the memories of the world, even those in the lands of Elsewhere. "He is to be alone, apart, while he is prepared by the current Receiver for the job which is the most honored in our community."
When Jonas meets the old Receiver, whose place he will ultimately take, he is amazed at the room lined with shelves of books. He had known only those that listed rules and regulations. His outline for training is clear: Spend each afternoon with the old man, be exempt from rules governing rudeness, never share dreams, ask any question, and "You may lie."
The old Receiver - now the Giver - begins to train Jonas with the pleasant memories: snow, sunshine (which existed before climate control) and color. "I've thought of a way to help you with the concept of color. . . . Close your eyes and be still. I'm going to give you the memory of a rainbow."
Jonas begins to realize the sameness of his community has blocked out all the feelings, insights and even choices that were once in the world. Weather is controlled, families are only planned units and the Old Ones are ultimately put in Release. The orderly life of happiness and then Release is a "gray" world, and he experiences the contrasts of joy and happiness, the pain of life and death, even laughter and tears. The pleasures, but also the pains (the wisdoms of the world), are what Jonas must learn and harbor so that he can assist the elders when they have a need. Jonas pleads to share the memories with everyone, "You and I wouldn't have to bear so much by ourselves, if everybody took a part."
The old Giver explains the plan of the community which has long been in place, "But then everyone would be burdened and pained."
There is nothing subtle or coy about Lowry's philosophical message here. Readers of all ages will understand the allegory of "choice" and Jonas' training, which is to turn his back on a world that does not have that option. But on the other hand, a world without war and contention is also an illustrious idea. The basic dilemma is whether a life of sameness (stoic courtesy and without "color") can be replaced with one of turmoil but with freedom.
Gabriel, a baby that the family has been caring for, is to be released because he cannot sleep the night through. When Jonas discovers that Release is not sending the baby away to Elsewhere but is actually death, he makes the decision that he and the Giver have planned - to escape.
In a fevered pitch of events, Jonas straps the baby Gabriel to his bicycle, dodges search parties, faces hunger and near-death from the cold. The ending will leave readers to their own resolution of whether Jonas actually finds Elsewhere or death, which may be the freedom Jonas has sought all along.
Lowry has spun a fantasy of a future world with verve and energy. Older readers ought to be captivated by a structure of life with little semblance to their own. It is orderly and without confusion. While this world of sameness is initially presented in convincing ways, the author strings clues along the plot that provide much to consider, such as the intercom system in each dwelling (another Big Brother listening?) and Asher's confusion about asking for a snack, actually saying "smack" and getting the latter.
Lowry is the author of more than 20 novels for young adult and middle-grade readers including "A Summer to Die," "Autumn Street" and the Anastasia Krupnik series for younger readers. The Newbery Award for "The Giver" is the second such medal. "Number the Stars," a book about the German Holocaust, won a similar award in 1990.