I can’t even begin to explain how much this book means to me. Lois Lowry’s The Giver changed my life when I was 14 (see story here), and reading Son feels like coming full circle. One of the reasons The Giver resonated so much with me is that I read it when I was fairly close to the age of its protagonist Jonas. So you can imagine the chill I got when, reading Son at 29, I realized that I must again be fairly close to the age of Jonas in this story. I’ve grown up with these books, and reaching the end of this series feels, in many ways, like ending a chapter in my own life. Son is a far more adult, far more sombre book than The Giver, or perhaps I have just grown up. [Minor warning: there will be spoilers about The Giver in this review.]
Son brought me to tears. From the very first line: “The young girl cringed when they buckled the eyeless leather mask around the upper half of her face and blinded her,” Son transported me right back into Lowry’s world, but a much darker, more frightening one than what I remember from The Giver. The “young girl” is Claire, fourteen years old, assigned to be a Birthmother. I can’t imagine being a mother at fourteen; worse, I don’t even want to imagine being twelve and being told that the only thing I have left to do in life is create a set number of babies, then retire.
Despite its title, Son is really about a mother, Claire. Her son is Gabe, the baby in The Giver who wasn’t performing at par with his age group and so had to be “released” (killed). At the end of The Giver, however, Jonas takes Gabe with him when he leaves town. Here’s the thing: as Gabe’s Birthmother, Claire isn’t supposed to see him again after birth — she wasn’t allowed to hold him, or even know his gender. Instead, she’s supposed to take pills to numb the pain of loss.
I’m not a mother, and I can’t even begin to imagine how that would feel. I have, however, lost my own mother recently, and that may be partly why Claire’s story resonated so strongly with me. I almost cried, and I also wanted to cheer, at the Claire’s resolution not to take the pills: “She would rather die, Claire realized, before she would give up the love she felt for her son” [page 116]. When Jonas takes Gabe away with him, Claire follows, and her quest, even though it’s just to a simple fishing village, felt powerful. Lowry’s way with words is nothing short of magic, making Claire’s journey feel as epic as a Tolkien narrative. Take for example the following conversation:
“It will be a long time,” he told her, “to make you ready.”
“Not days or weeks,” he said.
“Mayhap it will take years,” he told her. “For me, it was years.”
“How do I start?” Claire asked. [p. 209]
The language is that of fairy tales and legends. Lowry takes something as ordinary as the love of a mother for her son, and reveals just how extraordinary it really is.
In her speech at Book Expo America 2012 about Son, Lowry says that she wrote The Giver as a response to a question from her own son, a soldier who died in battle, who’d asked her why evil exists in the world. She had no answer. But evil does exist in Son, and while Claire faces evil, it will ultimately be up to her son Gabe to defeat it.
Evil, in Son, takes the form of the Taskmaster, who promises to fulfill a wish, but will require payment of your most valuable asset. In some people, payment will take the form of their kindness, in others, youth. And generally, whatever they receive turns out not to be worth what they gave up. The Taskmaster is a classic figure in literature, and with her simple, lovely language, Lowry makes us feel just how much is at stake here.
We do meet Jonas again; he is an adult now, and his new perspective of the world reminds me of just how much I’ve grown myself since I first began these stories. Son feels both epic and personal, and reading it is just an overwhelming experience. We want the Taskmaster to be defeated because, even though we know it’s fiction, even though we know evil will always exist in the real world, Lowry has immersed us so much in her world that whatever the outcome there is, it matters. Call it superstition, call it sentimentality, but I couldn’t help feeling that if only Gabe defeats the Taskmaster, perhaps a bit of the evil in the real world can also be defeated. Unrealistic yes, but Lowry’s words have a way of bringing out the child in her readers, the child that still believes in hope.
Son is probably one of the most powerful books I’ve read all year. The Giver changed my life as a child. Son brought me back to who I was — and in many ways, felt like the end of a chapter in my own life. Has reading Son changed me as an adult? Possibly, but unlike my experience with The Giver, I can’t even begin to tell you how.
Lois Lowry’s amazing, heartbreaking speech at Book Expo America 2012:
Evil does exist, it has always existed, and we will fight it again and again. And in every generation, it is the young who come forward and try to bring an end to it. It’s fiction, of course, the happy ending… [But] young people, young readers believe they can fix the world.
Thank you to Thomas Allen Ltd for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
[All quotes and page numbers from Son in this review are from the Advance Reading Copy.]