“Son,” by Lois Lowry, is the final installment in a quartet of books started almost 20 years ago. The best known of these is the first one, “The Giver,” a Newberry Award winner published in 1993.
“The Giver” sets the stage of a seeming utopia where everyone is polite and deferential, and appears to work together for the greater good of their Community at large. But the illusion masks a dystopia at its worst: a place where people have no choices or personal freedoms, have eliminated uniqueness in the name of equality, and have surrendered their ability to experience deep emotions or personal connections in exchange for meticulously monitored safety.
It is in this gray and regulated world that Jonas is born and raised. When he turns twelve, he is recognized as one who has a special, almost supernatural gift. Consequently, he is chosen as the new Receiver for the Community: the individual who must learn and bear all the joy—and all the pain—that has been erased from the peoples’ lives in order to maintain their carefully regulated world.
But the burden is too great and Jonas risks his life to escape, taking a baby—who just might have similar gifts—with him.
The next two books in the series, “Gathering Blue” and “Messenger,” can each stand on their own, but readers will run into some of the same characters and thematic elements as the plots unfold and the greater story is developed. Filled with detail and drama, “Son” concludes Jonas’s story, reveals what happened to the baby boy he was so desperate to save, and introduces Claire, the young mother who bore that baby.
Divided into three books (“Before,” “Between,” and “Beyond”), “Son” begins around the time Jonas turns 12, but it focuses on Claire, a young girl of 14 who has been chosen to be a Birthmother. Unlike Jonas’ assignment, the Birthmothers are looked down upon as dimwitted. They’re separated from society during their three years of “production,” and then reassigned to a lifelong task of manual labor.
This system of producing and raising children leaves both the Birthmothers and society at large with no knowledge of the science of reproduction and no insight into the nature of the nurturing soul of a family. But when Claire’s first birth goes deeply awry and she is decertified of her Birthmother status, she is left with a disfiguring scar upon her womb and a gaping wound in her heart: She doesn’t know what she’s lost, but she knows—she has lost something.
“Before” unfolds as Claire struggles with a growing discontentment with a place and lifestyle she never previously questioned, due to an undeniable yearning for her child—her son. However, when she, too, manages to escape, determined to find her son, her hardships and heartache have only begun. “Between” tells the story of her life after leaving the Community—years spent in a small settlement where life is cold and hard, spent breaking the ground and fishing the sea. At first glance, it’s an unforgiving place with ignorant people, but upon looking closer it becomes clear: Here life is lived close to the earth and dependent on each other—everything missing in the world from which she came.
Finally, “Beyond” is set in Village. With great struggle and enormous pain, Claire finally makes her way to the same place where Jonas and the baby, now grown, arrived many years earlier. In Village, people work together as they appeared to do in the Community, but here, individuality is valued, pain is not avoided but worked through, and community is fostered not through rules but through togetherness. Perhaps most importantly people are allowed to make their own choices, despite the risk it brings.
“Son” combines the worlds Lowry created separately in her previous books. In some ways, introducing new places with more palpable characters seems to lessen the vague yet widespread power the leaders of the Community held in “The Giver.” The three places represented in “Son” contrast with each other so sharply that I initially struggled to believe they could all co-exist in the same world, simply separated by great distances. But I was immediately sympathetic to Claire, whose difficult personal and physical journey not only made her a complex and emotive protagonist, but also gave tangible purpose to each new place.
Despite their differences, Lowry uses each setting, as well as each new antagonist, to highlight both the internal and external forces that come against us as we daily battle to accept our circumstances, ourselves, and those around us, without surrendering the things that make us unique or letting go of our convictions. She also highlights the way both our greatest desires and best intentions can be used against us, and what consequences might follow.
“Son” continues to develop the themes of family, relationships, individuality, community, acceptance, love and the sanctity of life at every age that Lowry introduced in the other three books. In the end, perhaps Village is Lowry’s idea of utopia; perhaps it is Jonas’s. Either way, it is not free of difficulty, but it is filled with genuine people and sincere emotions. There are still dark forces seeking to destroy the people and the way of life they’ve fought to protect. But it is through this final reckoning that the three runaways from the original Community discover the depths of their inner fortitude and strength, and learn that the value of having family and experiencing love is worth the high price they each had to pay to find them.
Image copyright Houghton Mifflin. Review copy obtained from the publisher.
Annie Provencher is a writer in Manassas, Va.
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