Thursday, August 6, 2015

Lowry Giveth, and Lowry Taketh Away

WARNING: This post completely spoils The Giver and Messenger by Lois Lowry. Not that she left much for me to spoil...

I hate The Giver

I  read Lois Lowry’s The Giver for the first time (and the second and third time) as a grade school assignment – I adored it. I eagerly shed off the tales of talking animals, of neatly bound fables, and choose-your-own-adventure Goosebumps (almost) for this dark, alluring “big kids” novel. It catapulted me into a decade-long fascination with dystopian fiction. Afterward, I leapt into Lord of the Flies and 1984 – very adult, and very fundamental pieces of literature. The Giver was the catalyst in my transition from children’s to adult fiction – a life-altering moment.  

Look at this smug bastard.
Lowry was also the first writer to show me that fiction isn’t always tidy. I loved the ambiguous ending, when Jonas is sliding away from his restrictive world, with the colors and the cold whipping around him – what happened to Jonas? Did he escape? Did he die? Was all of it just a drug-induced fever dream? 

My class spent an entire week discussing the ending. We had debates. We yelled and we laughed and
we let ourselves be completely absorbed by ideas. It was the first time in my life that I picked apart a piece of literature, defended my thesis, and really thought about the power an author has to bend our perceptions – about how our reactions to literature expose who we are. I was absolutely convinced that Jonas had died, and I loved the book because of it. Death made it a more meaningful, cautionary novel and, for some reason, I’ve always loved things that make me sad. But I was also intrigued by my classmates’ ideas – some of them outrageous or intentionally silly, but exciting none the less; their own personal convictions were bleeding out into their hopes and conclusions, and nothing pleases me more than the chance to analyze someone based on their literary conjectures.

Our class read interviews with Lowry in which she was asked about the ending of The Giver and her answer impressed the hell out of me: “That is up for you to decide.” This woman was respecting the intelligence of her young readers and I was thrilled. I was right, and you were right, and even though we moaned and acted as if we would die if she just did not tell us what it all meant, we were happy. It was a formative experience.

But now I am just mad.  A book that shaped my identity as a reader and writer is now one of my most despised objects. Lowry betrayed me, and I can’t go back.

He's on a real bad trip.
I made the grave mistake of reading Messenger, the third novel in the Giver Quartet. Not only did it lack the emotional intensity and eloquence of the first novel, it shattered every reason I had for liking The Giver. There’s Jonas, alive and well with his sled, which wasn’t a metaphor or a dream like I had hoped, but really just a plain old sled. And he’s a leader of some town? Everything worked out for him? And, mad and full of confusion and, strangely, a bit of panic, we are left floundering with no explanation. In fact, his very existence in this part of the story seems incongruous and glossed over – an afterthought, perhaps.

Lowry told us that we could pick the ending, then wrote one anyway. If she had any inkling that a sequel was in the works, she shouldn’t have given readers free-reign to decide for themselves. She could have just shrugged and said, “You’ll see.” (This is why I think the rest of the series is a huge afterthought and a money grab, but that’s a different story). There’s a big difference between “you can pick” and “you can guess.” I realize that many times, an author may not know there’s more to their own stories until well after the fact. Inspiration doesn’t care about publication dates. But, there’s no reason why Messenger had to be so out of touch with the first novel in the series and its readers. She squandered this giant gem of emotional intensity, mystery, and human nature in favor of a frustrating book about magical powers and Christ allegories and, quite honestly, probably a quick buck. The Giver and its first sequel, (though I didn’t know it was a sequel when I read it) Gathering Blue, are poignant because they feature people doing horrible things, and people overcoming them. Messenger’s moral lessons were the equivalent of giving bad acid to Aesop and seeing where things led. 

Maybe I’d be a little less upset if the “ending” she forced upon us was not so badly written.

Reading Messenger was like seeing an ex-lover for the first time in years. There are familiar pieces, pieces that feel, though you hate it, kind of interesting. But most of it just makes you embarrassed. Your cheeks flush and you want to retroactively go back and alter the few kind things you’ve ever said about it because now, having seen what it became, it’s just so horrible. You would rather not ever have been associated with this. Some things just don’t need sequels. 


  1. That is so sad to head. I take it you are not going to read the "new" Harper Lee novel?

    1. Hmm, I probably will. I can't stay away. I've heard it really changed some people's perspectives of Atticus, but I feel like I have enough warning that I'll be alright... unlike my experience with The Messenger.