We Americans live in a world where choice reigns supreme. Everything from what exotic fruit to enjoy at any given time of year to when and whether to have children is up to our choosing. Whether we should make those choices is an entirely different question. That requires wisdom, faith, and a well-formed conscience. But what happens when people aren’t willing to learn, to trust, and to reason? What if they choose incorrectly? Would it be better to just take away their ability to choose?
In the futuristic world of Lois Lowry’s barely twenty-year-old classic, The Giver, the government has reached exactly that conclusion. Jonas, a young boy, lives with his parents and sister and is anxious about his approaching twelfth birthday. On that day, he receives his assigned career, just as his parents did when they grew up and applied for spouses and for their allotted one male and one female child. Life is safe, orderly, and predictable. It’s perfect.
The problem is that Jonas’s world only seems perfect. In his unnamed community, failing to fit in leads to “release.” Jonas is assigned to be the community’s Receiver of Memory. He is the one chosen to remember the ancient times, back when people had choices and life had both great joy and great pain. Only the Receiver of Memory truly understands “release.” The previous Receiver, an old man, builds a relationship with Jonas unlike any he’s ever known. As Jonas takes on the memories and learns the truth, he realizes that he has to make a choice that will change his world forever.
I’m a sucker for books about teenagers with problems, but The Giver is much more than that. It won the Newbery Medal in 1994, which means it was recognized for its contribution to young adult literature. The language is simple, and the plot revolves around a young person, but the themes bring out the real treasure. Gerontology (the study of the elderly), the paradox of choice, the problem of pain, family, work, history: take your pick, because this book covers them all. Lowry’s skill at raising deep issues within an easy-to-digest narrative is impressive. She makes this a book for all ages.
Without revealing too much of the secret of “release,” I will stress that this is an important book to read in our time, one where definitions seem to change daily. While you still have choices, what will you choose? After all, choice (free will) is a gift from God, but we can choose to do evil. Love means more when it is freely given; an automaton can’t really love. What would it be like if we couldn’t choose at all? Are you willing to let that awful thought become a reality?