‘Son,’ by Lois Lowry
In 1993, when Lois Lowry shocked adult and child sensibilities alike with her Newbery Medal-winning novel “The Giver,” J. K. Rowling had not yet begun scribbling magic words on the back of cafe napkins and Stephenie Meyer had just graduated from her (presumably vampire-free) high school. Suzanne Collins had just sold her first teleplays for the gentle, nonviolent world of children’s television, and “dystopia” was a 50-cent SAT word unlikely to trip off the average sixth-grade tongue.
It’s difficult to imagine, in our post-“Hunger Games” world, how unusual and unsettling it was then for a children’s book to touch on euthanasia, suicide and murder, to couch it all in a bleak vision of political and emotional oppression and to leave its protagonist’s ultimate fate undecided. In many ways, Lowry invented the contemporary young adult dystopian novel. Now, nearly 20 years later — and with a glut of fictional oppressive societies leaving many of us with a bit of dystopia fatigue — she’s returned with a concluding volume that gloriously rebels against the restraints of the very genre she helped to create.
“Son” is being touted as the fourth book in the “Giver” quartet, as Lowry has previously published two loosely related companion novels, “Gathering Blue” (2000) and “Messenger” (2004). With “Son,” she’s woven these three disparate worlds together, heroes and fates colliding in a final, epic struggle. Fortunately, because this is Lois Lowry, the collision isn’t a rehashing of the same dystopian fireworks we’ve seen too many times before, but a quiet, sorrowful, deeply moving exploration of the powers of empathy and the obligations of love.
And fortunately for those of us who haven’t read “The Giver” since elementary school, “Son” easily stands on its own.
Set in the oppressive community of “The Giver,” the book introduces us to 14-year-old Claire, proudly serving in the job of “Vessel.” It quickly becomes clear what this vessel is carrying. “They don’t want you to see the Product when it comes out of you,” Claire’s friend explains. “When you birth it.” And so in a few efficient sentences, Lowry offers us a society that uses its young as brood mares, treats its newborns as manufactured commodities and denies any emotional connection between mother and child.
It would be easy to be lulled by these opening chapters, thinking them merely a supremely well-written version of something we’ve seen before — the generic proper nouns; the placid, unquestioning populace; the spunky protagonist primed to puncture its illusions. But Lowry clearly has little interest in confining herself to a template, and the story soon veers off the expected path and, literally, into the wild.
Something goes wrong during the birth. The baby comes out of it healthy, but Claire — at least by her community’s standards — does not. Because she now wants what she’s not supposed to: Love. Human connection. Her son.
The need to see him, to know him, to get him back, infects her every thought. So when the child is stolen from the community, Claire escapes to follow him — and here the book doesn’t so much defy expectations as slip through them like water, for escape is a nonissue, a blurry two pages of effortless departure, almost a fait accompli. It’s also the last we see of the community whose fate seems beneath Lowry’s concern.
Instead, we follow Claire’s search for her son, and what seemed like a dystopia resolves itself into something of a quest novel — a journey of endurance, courage and the occasional miracle. The all-encompassing maternal urge may not seem the most kid-friendly of subjects, but Claire’s desperation to reclaim a missing piece of herself is universal. Readers of any age will be hard-pressed to stop turning the pages in the hope that her son might await her on the next.
She’s got a whole world to discover before she can find him — a world of colors, seasons and emotions denied her by the community — and as her world opens, the novel’s language opens with it. When Claire washes up on a foreign shore, brutal, utilitarian sentences give way to lush descriptions of nature: “The slate gray sea roiled, scraping the narrow strip of sand rhythmically, tugging at the beach grass, digging and sucking loose the rocks at the shore’s edge.” Its words beating with the tide, the book bursts from black and white to brilliant Technicolor, and Lowry seems to rejoice in it as much as her character does.
With their sparse world building and fantastical touches, “The Giver” books have always flirted with allegory. In this last volume, Lowry fully embraces fable: Claire is more archetype than girl, the ur-mother in search of her unnamed son. There’s even a nightmarish monster lurking in the wood. What at first seems an odd note of fairy-tale villainy makes sense upon the realization that, unlike its predecessors, “Son” is not the story of a character confronting a damaged human society. It’s the story of a humanity battered by inhuman forces: Nature. Age. Maybe even evil.