Books 28 Dec 2009 10:52 am
Reviewer Francine Prose, bemoaning what she sees as the sad state of affairs in the teaching of literature in high schools, has noted that “[h]igh school — even more than college — is where literary tastes and allegiances are formed; what we read in adolescence is imprinted on our brains as the dreamy notions of childhood crystallize into hard data.”
Perhaps what Prose terms “the intense loyalty adults harbor for books first encountered in youth” explains why my seniors were shocked that I hadn’t read Lois Lowry’s The Giver, a soft sci-fi novel that many of them encountered for the first time in middle school, and one that obviously packed quite a wallop, given their impassioned championing of it. Many of my freshmen have the same reaction when discussing Hatchet, a survivalist story against which they judge every other novel that comes their way.
After one of my students announced her intention to compare Ayn Rand’s Anthem to The Giver, I vowed to read the latter over winter break. It was an easy promise to keep. Lowry’s book chugs along at an easy pace, deftly creating a futuristic society where every aspect is controlled by a seemingly benevolent government devoted to keeping its people fed, clothed, employed and happy. The protagonist, a young man named Jonas, is assigned the role of apprentice Giver, the person in the community who keeps painful memories so that the others are not bothered by them. His mentor is the current Giver, an elderly man who becomes a surrogate grandfather of sorts in a world where family ties and deeper emotions are frowned upon and prescribed away through pharmacology.
Published in 1993, the novel came along far too late to have been part of my formative literary years, but it’s easy to see why kids like it: Lowry lulls readers into a false sense of complacency, makes us believe that the world she describes is the utopian ideal, then pulls out the rug from beneath us by exposing the horrors that lurk just below the surface. The book has a very indeterminate ending, one which is apparently undercut by a sequel (which I haven’t read).
I wonder what Prose made of The Giver, if she considers it worthy of the acclaim heaped on it by this latest generation of readers, or if she would consign it to the slag heap of “dubious literary merit” where it would join William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Eli Wiesel’s Night and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 as a book that was not worthy of its young audience.