Lessons In Small Print: Imperfect Is Perfect
Once a month, Meher Marfatia recounts stories from the preteen book club she runs with Rupal Patel. Part review, part reaction, she discusses plots and themes as much as the minds of their 11- to 14-year-old readers.
I chickened out halfway….
Choosing to read the rest of this story for kids only in brightly peopled places, like the Phuket beach where we were on holiday, I reserved a different book for bedtime reading instead. From its opening line (“It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened”), The Giver, by Lois Lowry, is as quietly disturbing as it is profound.
In an annual, year-end ceremony, 12-year-old Jonas receives his lifelong assignment: to be trained as Receiver of Memories by an enigmatic Elder merely addressed as The Giver. Jonas’ friends, Fiona and Asher, get ordained, too, as Caretaker of the Old and Assistant Director of Recreation respectively. In the confines of the society in which Jonas grows up, prescribed occupations are the norm. (His father, for instance, is a Nurturer who looks after newborns, and his mother works for the Department of Justice.) Yet it is Jonas’ unusual portfolio of duties that unravels dark secrets that threaten to rupture the fragile Community; doom looms large for anyone caught straying from narrow uniformity.
The Giver is a relentless read. Infused with a constant mood of foreboding, the novel left Rupal and me wondering: How would the book club kids react to this sinister piece of social science fiction?
With the propensity of the young to ride over rough terrain, they admitted to fleeting discomfort. But the preteens quickly saw the author’s steely skill for generating what they called “necessary fear” to raise pertinent, dystopian points.
“Few things are as they seem.”
This is among the most reassuring discoveries the children made while reading. Within the clean and calm of the bizarre Community – which knows no deprivation, loss or pain – it’s easy to assume all is well. The truth behind this apparent Utopia is chilling—but also empowering. One of our girls said, “Jonas may seem upset to find out he’s living a false life, but being selected as the next Receiver of Memory is the best thing to happen to him.” Jonas, whose assignment exposes him to life’s true pain and pleasure, is able to see the Community for what it is.
“There’s no ideal family.”
Here came more sweet relief. “This book makes me happy to go home to my own family,” was the overwhelming reaction. The children weren’t just incredulous, but bored with the story’s too-safe, prescriptive family roles. When some of them commented on the theme of thought control, others drew parallels with the domineering hold Indian families have over their young members – though even that rigidity isn’t as extreme as in the book, they said.
“Downplaying emotions leaves you empty.”
“Imagine living forever in denial, not knowing better,” was one boy’s take, while another added, “Ignorance is not bliss,” and a third said, “Feeling is living.” The preteens were equally aghast at the idea of the daily pill pubescent Community children are forced to swallow daily, which suppresses their growing sexuality. The emotionally barren landscape led them to draw a pair of interesting comparisons: between this craving-for-cleansing Community and Nazi Germany, and then between the Community’s mutations and the imminent possibility of genetically engineered babies.
“Suffering makes you appreciate good times.”
All the children, without exception, were stung by the inherent loneliness of Lowry’s sterile setting – a manipulated milieu bereft of joy, spontaneity, warmth or colour, a warped space without sadness, hunger, poverty, fighting, divorce or disease. “We think we don’t want war. If there were no wars how do we get to enjoy peace?” asked one perceptive boy.
“Perfection is too creepy.”
It’s okay to read about a fantasy world, but not cool to live in one, we heard from the kids, assured and realistic beyond their years. The menacing monotony ruling life in the Community stifles any rebellion. After a series of corrective lashes from a Discipline Wand, one chastised character is described: “When he began to talk again it was with greater precision. And now his lapses are very few. His apologies are very prompt. His good humour is unfailing.” Such daunting passages provoked different strands of debate in the group, which led us to…
“Power is less powerful than honour.”
Cutting through the clinical coldness of the plot, the children found the book strangely edifying. Rooting for choice over control, freedom over charade, they even quoted Spiderman’s Peter Parker: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Then, they settled down to write their views on the subject. Here’s one we loved: “Any man can have power. A good man can have honour. Only the best man can have both.”