Like a crisp breeze through the election year’s hot rhetorical winds comes “Son,” Lois Lowry’s beautifully wrought political fable that concludes the series she began in “The Giver.” Called “remarkable” and “unforgettable” in a Washington Post review two decades ago, “The Giver” won a Newbery Medal in 1994 and become a classroom staple, the kind of book sure to spark lively discussion. It also consistently ranks among the 25 most frequently challenged books, according to the American Library Association.
“The Giver” starts out pleasantly enough, with a well-organized society going about its business, but the story darkens as the reader realizes the deeper cost of this order: the removal of everything deemed unnecessary or disruptive, including colors, birds, dissenters and a challenging tot named Gabriel, whom the 12-year-old protagonist, Jonas, is determined to save.
The first section of “Son” revisits that place and those characters from the perspective of Gabriel’s teenage mother, and her tender, disquieting story should prove as galvanizing and controversial as its acclaimed predecessor.
Claire, 14, may not kick butt like Katniss Everdeen, but her placid, pill-controlled community is every bit as dystopic as the oppressed Panem in “The Hunger Games.” Gentle Claire is initially on track with the job assigned her at age 12: “Birthmother.” Her task: to birth a healthy “newchild” who will be raised for one year in the Nurturing Center and then assigned a “parental unit.” But this efficient process goes wrong during Claire’s delivery. Her “Product” is removed by Caesarean, and she is transferred to a new job. In the unexpected turmoil, the community forgets to apportion her pills, and Claire begins to feel the emotions — love, compassion, sorrow — that they had suppressed. She yearns for her child and stealthily visits him. When he disappears with an older boy, Claire flees the community to find him.
Claire’s search continues over years, and in the final part of the book, Lowry begins to shift her third-person point of view among Claire; her son, Gabriel; and his rescuer, Jonas. The boys, now 13 years older than in “The Giver,” have settled in a village that Gabriel is planning to leave. He wants to find a woman he dimly remembers, a woman he thinks of as his mother.
One great pleasure of reading “Son” is seeing the connection among characters from the previous three novels in the series. In addition to Gabriel and Jonas from “The Giver,” there is Jonas’s wife, Kira, the talented young seamstress from “Gathering Blue.” Likable Matty is mentioned with gratitude for his sacrifice in “Messenger.”
A consummate stylist, Lowry handles it all magnificently: the leaps in time, the shifts in perspective, the moments of extreme emotion — fear, joy, sadness — all conveyed in unadorned prose that seizes the heart. Here is Claire, in labor and denied even a glimpse of her newborn: “The young girl cringed when they buckled the eyeless mask around the upper half of her face and blinded her. It felt grotesque and unnecessary, but she didn’t object. It was the procedure. She knew that.”
This is the rare concluding volume that will send readers back to the first. One can then appreciate the contrast between Jonas in “The Giver,” easily receiving, through touch, the knowledge forbidden the larger community, and Claire struggling to learn that same information, including the names of birds and colors, after her escape. And there are the different depictions of aging: the community’s oldsters segregated into a bland House of the Old, awaiting death by injection, as opposed to the elders, wrinkled and bent, still engaged in village life. As perceived by Claire, the village is a busy, chatty utopia, full of weather, pain, feeling, beauty — the very things eliminated from the smoothly functioning community.
The story’s climax is quiet, a moment that calls us to consider our own choices, as individuals and as a country, and ask: What “best parts” of ourselves (integrity, energy, compassion) are we trading to get the “foolish things” that we think we want? And therein lies the power of this parable: It confronts us with some of the choices we are making and plays out the consequences. Give this book to your child, your grandmother, your senator, your neighbor: It’s a bipartisan tale for our times.
Quattlebaum is a children’s author who reviews young-adult fiction for The Post and teaches in the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.
By Lois Lowry
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 393 pp. $17.99. Age 12 and up