My son is reading a piece of literature that I used to teach.
He is reading Lois Lowry’s The Giver, the story of a young boy named Jonas living in a highly controlled community some time in the future. The novel fits into a larger genre of cautionary tales called “dystopian literature.” If a utopia is a society in which everything is perfect, a dystopia is the opposite: everything has gone wrong. The novel explores Jonas’s encounter with memories of “the past,” a time when people still had the freedom of choice.
When I first taught The Giver, the book had just come out, and it was controversial. In fact, it was banned in many schools for its disturbing content and ambiguous ending, but I taught The Giver to 9th graders in an independent school, so I had a lot of freedom. The Giver explores an age-old debate: Should government let people have freedom or seek to “protect them”? Should we value individuality or the greater good? Are emotional highs and lows better than the steady middle ground?
Fast forward. My son is now in 6th grade. Oh, he can handle the language and the concepts just fine. He is a voracious reader, and he seems to understand the book thus far. I have struggled over the last weeks because, really, I want him to discover the book himself. I want him to be stunned when he learns that the main character’s father has lied to him, that it is his father’s job to kill babies. To nurture them, yes, but also to decide which one’s live and which one’s die. Jonas watches his father administer a lethal injection to an otherwise healthy infant twin because the community has decided there can be no twins. And he learns that his father will have to “release” a baby that has been living with the family because he simply cannot sleep through the night without crying.
So I will be waiting for his response.
Because right now, he thinks The Community is a pretty good place to live.
No one has to worry about money, he insists. The climate is controlled. The birth-rate is controlled. Jobs are determined by Committee Members based on careful scrutiny of children and their personality traits. Kids who like to build become engineers and kids who like to play with children become Nurturers. There are Laborers and Birth Mothers. All kinds of jobs. My Monkey likes this kind of order. It seems logical, and it appeals to him.
“Sameness eliminated fighting and wars,” Monkey said matter-of-factly. “There is no more racism.”
“True, but people can’t see or appreciate colors. Everything is kind of beige, so they can’t appreciate hot pink flowers or the blue of an ocean,” I said. “And they don’t know snow or sunshine because of climate control,” I suggest.
He shrugged his shoulders at this. He isn’t far into the book yet to know what is coming.
While he was out today, I re-read The Giver from beginning to end. And I am struck by how Orwellian Lowry’s vision is. And I am amazed by all the ways the government has slowly intruded into our lives since 1993. Post September 11, 2001, video cameras are everywhere. Everywhere we go, we are being filmed. If we purchase something, our credit card transactions are tracked in a way they weren’t before. When we go to the airport, we are made to practically strip down – and we agree to do so, in the name of the greater good; we take off our belts and shoes and put our liquid products into baggies to be searched. We have caller identification so we no longer have to answer the phone. And every prank phone call can be traced back to the place of origin. The government is more involved in public education than ever, practically dictating to teachers the curriculum that needs to be taught. Textbooks, which have been approved and distributed throughout our country to our children, are filled with hundreds of factual and grammatical errors and people do not seem to be outraged. The latest version of Huckleberry Finn has had the “n” word removed. (Sure, you can still get the alternate version, but tens of thousands of students will never even know that another version exists because it is easier to edit the language of difference.) Journalism has become entertainment, and few people read primary sources. Most people just pop onto Blackberries and iPhones and read commentary (read: secondary sources or the ideas from “specialists” telling us what to think) about everything from the food we eat to the latest shooting. I see people forgetting how to think critically. I know people who do not know much about our Constitution. They could Google United States Constitution and read about it, but most folks would rather read Status Updates on Facebook or download the latest App designed to make us forget that our country is engaged in a war.
“There is no war in Jonas’s world,” Monkey said, his chin angled up defensively.
“True,” I said, thinking to myself but there is no love either.
And I wonder how many civil liberties my child might be willing to give up if the Government told him it was for the greater good.
It is a cruel fate how the Trickster/Creator has beset humanity. Humanity is not humanity without some of this dystopia present. Much of it quite ugly. And painful. Another irony is that the world of the Giver is thought to be utopian when in fact it is so dystopian. Dawg. I hope I don’t sound like Edith Bunker this morning.
Edith: Archie, Archie! I just came from the Sunshine fund bringing hope to the homeless and cheer to the cheerless.”
Archie: How about a beer for the beerless, huh?
You know I dig this kind of thinking. I was already thinking Orwell when I got to the latter half of this post. I have not read this book, but I relate to the experience of watching students as they get further into something when you know what’s coming.
Yes, govt. is way too intrusive/massive/involved. My students hear all my rants. To answer your question near the end about what your son will believe, I would say you’ll be in a great position to a) ask him what he thinks once the world he’s discovering gets scary and b) help him look back to how he thought said world looked alright for a time. From there you’ll be able to apply that to the real world. Things aren’t what they seem, especially when people claim to act in our best interests.
Very well written!!! what a thought provoking line!!!
“wonder how many civil liberties my child might be willing to give up if the Government told him it was for the greater good. “
“I can’t do that Dave.” – 2001: A Space Odyssey
How long until the computers, smartphones, etc tell US what to do/say/read? How long until they control our eating habits, reading habits, etc?
It is a scary world we live in. 1984, The Giver, and the Hunger Games trilogy offer views of how things may come to pass if we aren’t careful, and if we let the Government handle/remove/take charge of our civil liberties.
There’s so much to think about/comment on in this post, but I’ll restrict myself to my first line of thinking. I’m a voracious reader and have been ever since I found out during elementary school how it could transport me to another world. However, I wonder how much great literature I have disdained because I was exposed to it too early to understand/value it. I remember reading Animal Farm, Ethan Frome, Death of a Salesman, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, among others, all before 10th grade. I didn’t enjoy any of them. It’s a double edged sword, though. Wait too long to expose children and you might miss them entirely – too early and you might strangle their desire to read at all. Of course, this is an entirely non-professional observation. I don’t even have kids… so my opinion should be taken with a heaping pileful of salt.
It is an interesting point. The downside of education (and prescribed English curriculum) is that it does push students to take on material when they might not be ready. And then they tend not to revisit it later when it might have greater relevance in their lives. I might have to do a whole bloggie on that. Thank you for planting that seed.
This is a beautifully written piece. And I’d like to hear your son’s responses after he finishes reading the entire book. My son is only seven, but I can’t wait to have these type of discussions with him about the nature of books and life.
Still waiting for the kids to get to Chapter 19. It’s killing me softly. I will report back.
My daughter is about to read this and I too am very curious a to what her initial response and her over all response will be to the story. I loved reading your insight into the book.
I will let you know. Monkey’s teacher has them reading in a very slow, very controlled manner. She doesn’t want them to get to chapter 19 when everything goes down. I promise, I will follow up when he reports back — but it is taking forever!
Haha! Yes I will wait for the over all. I may have to blog about my daughters response as well.
Oh I haven’t heard of this book before. Sounds very interesting.
And how wonderful and fascinating to be able to experience your son’s journey through it, especially when he reaches those moments of revelation.
The most recent book I’ve given my 11-tear-old – though 12 tomorrow, is The Hitchhikers Guide to the galaxy. I read it when I was older, and for a long time it was my favourite. He’s young but voracious when it comes to books. I’ll be interested to see what he makes of it, whether he’s too young to get it.
I loved HG2TG! But I didn’t read that until I was well into high school. He will likely relate to the son’s character more than the character of the father. I am definitely going to do something about giving kids books to read and how they receive them at different times in their lives. Will you let me know how your 12 year old likes Hitchhiker’s Guide? I can’t imagine he’d like it, much as you’d want him to.
My all time favorite book is Lord of the Flies, but I have to let my son discover it on his own. I just know this about him. He won’t love it if I give it to him. Weird, right?
He is a voracious reader, but there is something about the process of finding the right book that is magical for him. I think I take something away from the journey when (in the past) I have put a book in his hands and said, “You should read this.” or “You might like this!” or worse, “I loved this when I was your age!” Maybe there is too much expectation or something. Not sure. Whatever it is, I am holding my breath until Monkey gets to Chapter 19 of The Giver. Can’t wait for dinner conversation that night.
And if your soon-to-be 12 year old hasn’t read it, see if he is interested. It’s an easy read. It’s the issues that it raises that cause the brain to spin.
Oh my – that response reminded me of Lord of the Flies… another curriculum book. I still get shudders remembering it. I didn’t get the commentary on the evolution/devolution of society at all at the time.
Exactly. It’s not exactly subtle that WWII is going on in the background, but a more mature reader gets that extra layer in a way a middle-schooler doesn’t.
I got through most of “The Giver” before my son had to confiscate it for his class last year, and I have yet to get back to it. I’m with you…how much are we, the people who live in the land of the free and the home of the brave, willing to give up in the name of “greater good”? Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…all things that mean Americans are risk-takers and should ALLOW risk-taking. “Lord of the Flies”–I read that as a high school junior! I think my son would enjoy that as well…What a great vision “survival of the fittest.” In high school I attempted “1984,” but didn’t have a clear understanding of it. I pushed thru a lot of classics last summer, “1984” being one of them. (Conspiracy theory is not one of my hobbies, but I’m sounding like a nut job right about now.) If you have a high schooler who is ready, it’s a good jump from “Giver” and “Lord” to remember that we should be RESPONSIBLE, but use our OWN minds to make decisions that affect us.
As far as Huck Finn is concerned, it makes MUCH, MUCH more sense to talk about racism and how, even in the 1960s, the n word was commonplace, but we would NEVER use such an inappropriate word now, but we are reading it to put the book in its proper historical context. We don’t alter Shakespeare, even though it has racist/sexist terms, so why mess with Twain? (Yes, I realize I am writing from the perspective of a white, middle class woman…and that I would have to face and uphill battle prior to using the novel and would probably not be granted permission to use it… but this scenario also presents itself with the opportunity to discuss censorship if done carefully enough so as to not lose my job!)
Thought-provoking piece, Renee.
As a voracious reader, does it drive your son crazy to have to read the book at such a restrictive pace?
The Giver is pretty heavy lifting, but really good stuff to think about. Is “perfect” really perfect?
Have you read Gathering Blue? It’s sort of a companion novel to The Giver. Similar ideas.
On the topic of middle-school age novels, some of the best stuff out there right now is by a guy named Jordan Sonnenblick. Humorous, witty, great story lines, and thoughtful themes about family and loss. Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie is a good place to start.
Chase, trying to stick to the teacher’s pace has been killing him… but the teacher explained that for this book in particular, there is kind of a “surprise” that could be ruined if everyone didn’t get there at the same time.
You know me. I launch into my own teacher head and think, “Aw Lordy, so do we have to slow down the fast readers? Really?” That said, for this book, in particular, I told Monkey to put the breaks on because I thought this was not something to rush. The stuff in Chapter 19 is really something upon which to ruminate. He is now on Chapters 21-22. I cannot wait until he finished so I can blog about some of our dinner conversations!
From here on out, he is just going to read at his own pace and make sure he knows where the class is so he doesn’t spoil anything for anyone. (Easier said than done!)
I have not heard of Jordan Sonnenblick, but I will check him out. I find that so much of middle school aged literature (YA’s in general) is so dark. I want less loss and pain and more joy. Can’t they delay that “the-world-is-a-terrible-place-to-live zeitgeist until 9th grade? 😉