What would it be like to live in a world with no hunger, no hatred, no violence, no poverty, and no war? Sounds pretty good, right? That is the world in which 12-year-old Jonas lives. We would call it Utopia. But a Utopia is not always what it seems. Which brings us to a side note about the word before we get to the book:
The word ‘Utopia’ was coined in 1516 by Sir Thomas More (see my review on the film A Man for All Seasons). In his book by the same name, Utopia, he used the word to describe a fictional place which fostered the perfect society. ‘Utopia’ is from the Greek and literally means, “no place.” Many believe More was trying to say that the perfect place is unobtainable. From it comes the term “dystopia,” which means a not-good or bad place. This brings us back to The Giver, because their utopian society might be dystopian, after all.
Jonas lives in a tightly-controlled, highly structured environment. Yes, there is no hunger, no hatred, no violence, no poverty, and no war, but there is also no choice, no freedom, no color, no self-determination, no feelings, no memories, and no love. All life-long careers are assigned to people when they turn 12 so they can begin training, which is where we find Jonas as the book opens. Jonas is given a highly honorable and important, yet very rare, job. As he begins his training he learns things that cause him to question everything he knows and believes.
This book reminds me of a quote that is attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” The people in Jonas’s community certainly have safety, but not much liberty. Is it worth the trade? I encourage you to read The Giver and to struggle with these questions for yourself and to assist your kids as they deal with them.