It’s happening. My son is currently reading the first piece of literature that I ever taught. 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. But my son doesn’t get this. Yet….
The magic in Lois Lowry’s The Giver occurs in Chapter 19 as the main character, the soon-to-be twelve-year-old, Jonas, realizes that everything is not as it seems in his seemingly idyllic community.
Up until Chapter 19, my l’il dude had been feeling really good about the community in which the characters lived their daily lives. He believed everyone lived in total equity. He loved how everything was shared communally, how everything was controlled by “the Elders,” right down to the vocations people were given, the people they were matched up to marry, and the children they received to raise. I think he was ready to up and move there.
Monkey didn’t seem to catch that individual identity had gone the way of 8-track cassette tapes, that no one had any emotions at all, and everyone was essentially just like everyone else.
In Chapter 19, Jonas makes a major discovery. The process of “release,” which is mentioned throughout the book, is nothing more than lethal injection. Needless to say, Jonas is horrified as he watches a video of his own father, a caregiver, performing the procedure on an otherwise healthy infant.
Monkey’s teacher asked the students to please keep the pace with fellow classmates for this book and asked them not to read ahead – something that was exceedingly difficult for my voracious reader.
I promised him there was a reason.
And then one day from the couch, I heard Monkey’s voice “Holy. Guacamole.”
I knew he had reached Chapter 19.
Sitting up, Monkey looked at me. “So…so…so… so… so if they kill people there must be other things that they do that don’t discuss, like who removes the bodies and what do they do with them? There must be tons of secret stuff that goes on.” He paused for a moment, “There are always helicopters flying overhead. I never thought about it. But maybe they are more about surveillance than transportation.”
He was putting things together, making connections. The synapses were firing.
“This book is creeping me out!” he exclaimed and then disappeared behind the couch again to continue reading.
A few nights after Monkey had finished reading The Giver, my son announced, at dinner, there had been a very lively discussion about the end of the book. Apparently, Mrs. English Teacher had asked her students the penultimate question: Do you think The Giver has a happy ending?
Best. Question. Ever.
Monkey reported that some of his peers thought the book had a very happy ending, that Jonas had successfully escaped from his community on his bicycle with Gabriel, a sick infant that his family had been caring for. They justified their answers by saying they knew it was a happy ending because at the very end, Jonas was on a sled with Gabriel, and they were preparing to slide down into a cozy looking village where there were lights. Monkey said those students felt confident that Jonas and the baby were going to be able to survive in this new community called Elsewhere.
I held my breath.
Because that interpretation is soooooo not it.
Nervously, I asked my son if he agreed that The Giver had ended happily.
Monkey chewed his chicken about fifty times, then swallowed. Finally, he shook his head. “Not at all,” he said, adding that he thought that it was pretty much impossible for it to be a happy ending given that the vision Jonas had of his idyllic community was way too similar to a vision that the Giver had shown Jonas earlier in the book.
Monkey said, “Jonas was probably hallucinating and kinda holding onto one last bit of hope before he and the baby froze to death.”
Wow, if my Monkey was gruesome in his analysis, I didn’t really care.
He was spot on.
I asked my son if he had spoken up and stated his alternate interpretation of the ending and he said that he had. He said other students agreed with him, but a lot of people argued that Jonas had made it out and that he and the baby were going to be fine.
“Some people can’t face the truth,” said Monkey, sounding way too mature making me want him to go upstairs and re-read every book in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.
Whether or not all the kids agreed about the ending was not the issue for me. I was just happy that my son had turned the corner and gotten from the novel what I believe readers are supposed to get, the concept of dystopia. From the way he explained it, Monkey’s teacher facilitated an amazing discussion about culture and government, people and lies and truth, when people need to know things and when it might be in their best interest not to know things. I was so grateful that this discussion took place in a classroom with a responsible teacher there to facilitate things.
And while every teacher wants her students to have that epiphany about the literature, the reality is that folks will always have different interpretations of the ending of certain books and, frankly, that’s what makes those books delicious. In The Giver, one’s understanding is truly based on his intellectual and emotional willingness to accept that things are not always what they seem.
What makes The Giver a classic is that it is often the first piece of real literature that students read which allows them to look critically at our own government – which can be scary for kids. It forces them to ask uncomfortable questions: Has there ever been a time when our government has knowingly lied to us? Are there justifiable reasons for our leaders to withhold the whole truth?
As I washed the post-dinner dishes that night, I was happy that Monkey’s class had a great discussion and, from the way it was reported to me, none of the students were told how to think or what the “right answer” was. They were, instead, instructed to look to the literature to find the answers and then left to squirm in their own uncertainty, which can be a very good thing.
What’s got you squirming?
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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.