Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A Lois Lowry triple header

I remember a lot of good books when I was a kid but there is something to be said for reading books of your childhood again when you're an adult. Some are simply too complex for most kids to appreciate, like the Wrinkle in Time series by Madeleine L'Engle and everything by John Steinbeck (I thought Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath were big and boring when I was in high school but I read East of Eden (even bigger) a year or two ago and absolutely loved it). Other books can be appreciated as kids, but take on even greater meaning years later when revisited.

Megan gave me a bag of books to read and three by Lois Lowry were included - The Giver, Gathering Blue, and Messenger. I'd read The Giver in 7th grade but not the others. Megan recommended reading them in that order and I gamely obliged (at least, I think that's the right order; it seems appropriate in retrospect). They're relatively quick reads and you could probably finish each one in less than 2 hours. When I was told that the three went together, it put me on the lookout to figure out how, but if you didn't know that, you probably wouldn't figure out how they were connected until Messenger. Without giving away too much of the plot for those who haven't read them...

The Giver takes place in a seemingly utopian, isolated community where people give up free will, basically, in return for security. But one person is responsible for keeping all of the "memories" of the people inside him - the knowledge of history, of emotion, of beauty, and most importantly, of pain and suffering. This person is known as the Receiver, and without him/her, all these memories would go back out to the people where they'd cause pain and suffering once again. The boy who is chosen to become the new Receiver learns all this and attempts to escape. Given that I have very little idea of what I want to do career-wise, the system described in The Giver appealed to me in a strange way - everyone was told what job they would fulfill as an adult based on how they volunteered their time as a pre-teen. At the very least, it makes you think about how life might be easier in such a community, and what the value of our memories and experiences have for us.

Gathering Blue, on the other hand, takes place in a community that you know immediately is far from utopian. People live in poverty and squalor and treat each other, including their children, terribly. They live in fear of "beasts" in the forest surrounding the village and cast out the weak, sick, or otherwise handicapped to die. This book tells the story of a girl born with a twisted leg who should have been cast out, but was allowed to live because of her widowed mother's connections. But it turns out that she has a gift for needlework which is highly prized by the leaders of her community. After her mother dies, she is given a life living in good conditions working on an important garment that symbolizes the past and future of her people. For once, she has respect, freedom, and all of her needs provided. But secrets lurk throughout, as she learns, and she soon realizes that what she is really meant to do is to change the future of her community.

Messenger was my least favorite of the three books. Although you learn how each book is connected and it helps to resolve some of the disappointment that the other two books leave you with (they both end abruptly, leaving you wishing you knew what happened), as its own story it feels a little... small. I simply didn't care as much about what happened in this book. Part of it may be that it felt too ad hoc, too contrived. But it was still engaging enough for me to read it in one sitting, and it's nice to know what happens to the characters. I just wish it had left me feeling a little more satisfied.

So after all that, I have a newfound respect for Lois Lowry. I remember really enjoying Number the Stars as a kid, too. But reading these books now, I really appreciate her ability to take a compelling idea, craft an entire society, and weave them together into a cohesive whole that has depth and can speak to people of different ages. Although the books are short, she is able to create convincing worlds and tell richly textured stories. And the books are so effortless to read, it almost makes you think it's not that hard to write that well!

No comments: