Thursday, January 03, 2013

Emily's Book Review: Son by Lois Lowry


If you haven’t yet read The Giver by Lois Lowry, stop reading this review right now, and go read that book instead.  Published in 1993, The Giver has been a staple in English classrooms and on teens’ bookshelves ever since, and some adults still regard it as a masterpiece of dystopian literature.  It tells the story of Jonas, a boy in a society where families are chosen for children after they are born, careers are chosen for young adults at age twelve, and where war and pain have been eliminated through the introduction of “sameness.”  Rather than receiving an ordinary career assignment, Jonas is selected to be the “Receiver of Memory,” and throughout the course of the book, readers watch as he discovers what life used to be for his community.  There was pain, strife, and even hunger, but there were also celebrations, true families, and love—things Jonas has never experienced before. 


Near the end of The Giver, Jonas finds out that a baby his family has been helping to nurture is about to be “released.” Baby Gabriel has failed to thrive; therefore, the Elders have decided, he cannot be placed with parents and cannot continue to exist.  Horrified, Jonas decides to leave the Community forever and take Gabriel with him, and the novel ends ambiguously, with readers not knowing whether Jonas and Gabriel die or find another community in which to live.


For years, young readers have asked Lois Lowry, “What happens to Jonas?” and until now, she has not fully answered the question.  In the past, Lowry has published Gathering Blue and Messenger, books which allude to the world of The Giver and its characters but aren’t true sequels.   Lowry had never intended to answer all the questions her fans had asked, but with Son, that is exactly what she does, finally writing a book that will satisfy two generations worth of curiosity.


Son follows the story of Claire, the fourteen-year old girl who gives birth to Gabriel.  At the beginning of the story, Nurturers take him from her and assign her to a new position in the Community, assuming she will soon forget her young son.  But she doesn’t.  At first, she finds ways to go to the Nurturing Center during all her spare moments to visit him, and, after she finds out that he has been taken from the community, she gets on a ship and leaves the Community, determined to spend her life find a way to reunite with her son.


The village Claire soon finds herself in is a community vastly different from her own.  There she meets an old woman who takes her in as her own and teaches her about all the parts of life that were missing in her old community.  There, she has a pet, attends wedding celebrations, helps heal the sick, and learns to recognize colors for the first time.  She even meets a young man who cares about her and wants to help her learn.  Still, Claire cannot forget Gabriel, and so she decides that she must leave the sense of family and safety she has found in this little village in order to finally find her son.


In many ways, Son mirrors and finalizes The Giver perfectly, as it builds on many themes from the earlier book.  Like The Giver, Son emphasizes originality and free choice, and like Jonas, the fact that Claire’s experience is different from the rest of the Community’s causes her to realize that the ideal, painless life she thought she was living is far from perfect.  In many ways, Claire’s story is even more gut-wrenching than Jonas’, because the Community has taken her child from her, a child they never expected her to meet or care for or love.  I also thought the story was interesting because readers see the Community through the eyes of an older character.  As a fourteen year-old, Claire is considered an adult, and no longer lives in her parents’ home.  In fact, since they have raised her, they are no longer considered her parents—a concept I found frightening, since Claire is literally thought to belong to no one for the remainder of her adolescence in the Community.


As a sequel, Son was interesting, because it tells the story of The Giver from a different perspective.  Though it still answers the question “What happened to Jonas?”, the book is told from Claire’s point of view and actually begins before The Giver starts, while Claire is in the delivery room.  I found this a fascinating way for Lowry to tell the next piece of the story.  Not only do we see what happens next when Claire goes on the journey to find her son; we also get to experience the world of The Giver from the perspective of an ordinary Community member.  While Jonas is undeniably special (a “Receiver of Memory” is only chosen once in several generations), Claire’s chosen assignment is birthmother—a profession that is considered one of the least noble in the whole Community.  Before her son is taken, she is only vaguely aware of Jonas’s existence, and in the meantime, readers watch as she lives her life as a normal Community member.  We watch as she lives in her dormitory, works at her ordinary assignment at the fish hatcheries, eats meals with her co-workers, and forms shallow, surface-level friendships with them.  As a reader, I truly got a sense of how boring and superficial life is for an ordinary character in the world of these stories—and how far members of the Community have been brainwashed to not want more.


Like Gathering Blue, Son is also interesting because it explores an alternate location that is outside the Community but is still a part of the same obviously futuristic world.  The village Claire finds herself in when she leaves the Community is probably the most pleasant setting that is introduced in books related to The Giver.  Located over a cliff by the sea, this village is far removed from technology or modern medicine, yet features many things that have been lost or done away with in the Community.  Claire sees animals there for the first time in her life, and to the surprise of the woman who takes her in, she has to be taught the concept of yellow and red and blue, as she has never seen colors before.  The village is quaint—with town-wide wedding celebrations and little girls playing tea-party by the sea.  Of course, Claire eventually leaves this village and goes on to find her son, but it is interesting to consider how all these worlds inside the larger world of the books might fit together.


In short, I would recommend Son (along with Gathering Blue, Messenger, and especially The Giver) to everyone.  Adults and children alike can enjoy these stories and appreciate the skill with which Lowry has written them.  Furthermore, dystopian stories such as this one can go a long way toward making us appreciate our own messed-up, imperfect world, full of pain and strife and family and love.


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