Laura Zeugner lives in Allston, writes poorly and wishes she had used the pun “Young Adult Friction” more in this post.
Like most Young Adult readers, I was introduced to Lois Lowry via Number The Stars, an “edgy” book about a young Christian girl’s experience with the Holocaust in Denmark. I remember being completely obsessed with this book, along with every other YA Holocaust book. And then I realized that what I enjoyed about these books was not the genocide, but the dystopian-esque survival stories they all revolved around, and my mother recommended The Giver (yeah, before it was even on my summer reading list, because I was gifted – puns!).
Before I delve into an attack of the role of women in The Giver, let me tell you about Lowry. Because I know about Lois Lowry. You are talking to someone who not only met Lowry, but who cried in front of her and BOUGHT a copy of her autobiography (like $40 bucks!) just so she could sign something.
Like many other world leaders (okay, one) Lowry was born in Hawaii. She went on to do stuff, and fast-forward to her first novel: A Summer To Die. This is a seriously weird book – talk about not cool for women! The two main characters are sisters, one of whom is jealous of the other’s blond ringlets and then is made to feel horrible about that because blondie – spoiler alert – gets leukemia. (I know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking that Nicholas Sparks wrote this, but he didn’t, he couldn’t have, because he was only 10 in 1977, when this book was written.) Also there is such a long scene in which the jealous sister takes pictures of a live birth, which I guess could be kind of progressive but instead it’s just super awkward.
Lowry also wrote about one billion books in the Anastasia Krupnik series. I didn’t read those. Wikipedia claims she is the greatest female YA protagonist besides Harriet The Spy, but I cannot vouch for this. [Ed. note: I can and will vouch for this, especially as an Anastasia book was the first time I saw a swear word in Literature.]
In case you missed your entire childhood, here is a brief summary of The Giver: Jonas is an 11-year-old boy who lives in a weird futuristic/dystopian society in which literally everything is controlled in order to eliminate suffering of any kind. Upon turning 12, he is assigned (as all 12-year-olds are assigned their profession in this society) the role of “Receiver,” an usual job, because he demonstrates exceptionalism. He can see color, for example, while everyone else cannot. As Receiver, Jonas meets with an old guy named “The Giver,” who transfers memories into Jonas’ brain of a time before this society existed. Jonas is given memories of both happiness and pain (also things like animals and love, which don’t exist in the society) and is exposed to the reality of his community.
The Giver has only about three female characters who play a significant role. They are Jonas’s mother, his sister Lily and a girl in his age group named Fiona. I always identified with Fiona because her red hair is one of the first things Jonas sees, and because she loves to give elderly people baths. But, looking back, Fiona kind of sucks. She’s quiet and accepts everything around her without question, even when she is told to kill (“release”) her elderly patients (she is given the role of Caretaker, looking after old people – what an empowering role for ladies!). She also dismisses Jonas as a nutter early on. Jonas’s mother and sister, who are portrayed as more rowdy than Fiona, are equally dismissive of Jonas, lack imagination and repeatedly enforce the rules. Isn’t that soo like us girls? Always with our rules, so boring, holding dudes back from their true, awesome dudely potential.
My main argument against the The Giver as female-friendly YA fiction, though, lies in the Receiver before Jonas, who was female. Rosemary, who was selected like Jonas to become the Receiver of memory at age 12, ultimately replaced The Giver (who’s getting up there in age). However, Rosemary suffered a nervous breakdown after receiving memories of pain and sadness from The Giver and is implied to have committed suicide by throwing herself into a raging river. The Giver remembers Rosemary fondly, but claims that she wasn’t strong enough to receive memories and he should have chosen someone else. Just a coincidence that the weak, emotional character who kills herself in a dramatic, Victorian way is a woman? Once again the person who lets her society down and isn’t strong enough to be a leader is a female. Perhaps if there were other strong ladies in this book it might make up for the fact that Rosemary is so clearly weak. Instead we are left viewing her as the clear opposite of Jonas, who can Take It All.
There is not a single forward-thinking, imaginative, or strong female character in this book, while Jonas is all of these things. He’s not a perfect protagonist, for sure, but compared to these ladies, he’s Hercules. He is clearly contrasted to a lesser female character, and constantly negged (but not in the good, Pick-up Artist way) by the women around him.
In case you thought the sequel would be different, I’m here to tell you, no. There are two follow-up books to The Giver, called Gathering Blue and The Messenger, respectively, which I won’t go into except to say that neither portrays women in a great way either. As a Lowry lover and as a WOMAN, I had hoped to go back to my favorite YA book and find a long list of strong female characters. But so far The Giver has really let me down.