Can we talk about ambiguity? I just read Lois Lowry’s new book, Son, which is the final book in what is now apparently being referred to as the “Giver quartet.” I have mixed feelings about the book, and they have to do with the question of ambiguity.
I loved The Giver. It (rightly, in my opinion) won the 1994 Newbery Medal, and was the one book cited when Lowry won the 2007 Margaret A. Edwards Award for lasting contribution to literature for young adults. One of the things I really appreciated about The Giver was its ambiguous ending. What were Jonas and Gabe approaching in the last lines of the book? Was it really another civilization–an Elsewhere with music and colors–or were they dying, and the music and colors were all in Jonas’s imagination?
I know–because I have heard Lois Lowry discuss this on a couple of different occasions–that this ambiguous ending bothered many kids. They wrote to her, asking what had happened. But I have discussed the book with kids–in the library, and with you and your brothers (you were 12 when The Giver was published)–and I always thought that the ambiguity of the ending made a great talking point. “What do you think happened?”
So for that reason, I have sort of resisted the other companion books. I know I read Gathering Blue when it first came out, but I’m pretty sure I never read The Messenger at all, mostly because I didn’t really want to know what Lois Lowry had decided had become of Jonas and Gabe. I wanted their story to end on the last page of The Giver.
But I read some good reviews of the new book, Son, and the other day, when I was in the library, there it was, sitting on the “Bestsellers” (no holds, no renewals) shelf, so I picked it up. It’s a quick read, despite being over 300 pages. I was immediately drawn into the story of Claire, the young girl who was the birthmother of Gabe. It has been a while since I read The Giver, but I pretty quickly remembered the essentials and I found Claire’s story engrossing. I admired the way that Lowry writes in a very spare style at the beginning of the book, befitting the colorless and regimented Community, and how that style gradually changes, as Claire begins to have feelings and emotions, to the point when she lands after a storm into an entirely new community, and the language positively blossoms: “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.”
I was fascinated by Clare’s determination and ability to make herself strong enough to climb the cliff so she could find her son. I liked the relationships she built in the new community. (I had one tiny quibble at this point, and that was that Claire apparently saw colors for the first time in the new community. Yet, she hadn’t been taking the pills for some time when she left the old community, and she was clearly feeling emotions–so why wasn’t she seeing colors there?) But then she climbs out, and she makes the trade with Trademaster, and the story shifts yet again, to the village where Jonas and Gabe live. And here is where the story lost all its ambiguity (or at least that was my first reaction; more on this later). Lowry answered all the questions. She told us what was happening. We knew who was good and who was bad. She answered all the questions we might have had about Jonas and Gabe and their lives after The Giver. She wrapped everything up neatly.
So as much as I was engrossed by the story, and as satisfying in many ways as the conclusion was, I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t any more ambiguity. I thought, well, that’s one thing that makes this a children’s book, not a young adult book.
But now that a few days have passed, and I am writing about it, it occurs to me that there was plenty of ambiguity left. For one thing, once Claire leaves a community, we don’t know any more about what happens there. We never learn, for example, whether Jonas’s father was punished for his role in the abduction of Gabe, or if a new Receiver is selected after the second failure in ten years. And what about those supply boat people? Where are they from, and who arranges for the supplies to be delivered? We never learn what happens to Alys or Einar. And why does the original community have electricity and technology, but the other two don’t? And why doesn’t Claire seem to know about rain? Is the community domed or something?
So once again, Lois Lowry has surprised me and created a story that will give readers plenty to talk about. I’m sure it will come up in Newbery discussions, and I’ll be interested to see what others think. I think it stands on its own, but it will also be a hard book to discuss without reference to The Giver.
So, have you read Son? And if not, any thoughts on the general topic of ambiguity?