Written seven years after her iconic “children’s” book, The Giver, Lois Lowry returns to a future world in the companion piece, Gathering Blue, but this time, society has not advanced. Instead, the future appears desolately dystopian, with rigid social mores and traditions even more ruthlessly enforced.
The village where the young girl Kira lives is not a forgiving one. The book opens with Kira at the Field of Leaving, holding a final vigil over the body of her mother who succumbed to a quick and unexpected illness only four days earlier. Due to a deformity at birth, Kira has a twisted and useless leg – according to tradition, she should have been left at the Field upon birth – and she now has nowhere to turn, no one who will take her in. Her mother, a respected “threader,” had been Kira’s one staunch champion (her father, a skilled hunter, had died before Kira was born), so now the young girl would have to justify her existence on her own. There is not even a home for Kira to return to, as the hut she had shared with her mother had been burned to ensure the illness which had taken her mother’s life would not spread to the rest of the village.
Kira’s struggle not only for acceptance, but for the very right to exist, is unexpectedly given a boost when the Council of Guardians – the wise men who govern the village – choose to sequester her in the Council Edifice, where she can continue her mother’s work: repairing and restoring the sacred robe worn once a year by the Singer when he recounts the people’s history in the Song of Ruin at the Gathering festival. Whereas standard cloth was dull and monotone, the Singer’s robe is a wonder of color and shapes which recount the history of civilization in the Song. Unknown to others but apparently revealed to the Council of Guardians, Kira has not only inherited her mother’s skill in threading, but seemed gifted to surpass her mother’s talents:
Kira had always had a clever way with her hands. When she was still a tyke, her mother had taught her to use a needle, to pull it through woven fabric and create a pattern with colored thread. But suddenly, recently, the skill had become more than simple cleverness. In one astounding burst of creativity, her ability had gone far beyond her mother’s teaching. Now, without instruction or practice, without hesitancy, her fingers felt the way to twist and weave and stitch the special threads together to create designs rich and explosive with color. She did not understand how the knowledge had come to her. But it was there, in her fingertips, and now they trembled slightly with eagerness to start.
But Kira learns through time that even advantage can be a form of control, and, (as Jonas did in The Giver), that appearances – even those that form the very foundation of society – can indeed be deceiving.
As with The Giver, Lowry is able to build a world that is wholly familiar to the reader, and yet is also distinctly different. In the earlier book, it was the family unit and community rituals and traditions that felt both familiar yet unexpected. In Gathering Blue, it is the familiarity of the village dynamic, but just different enough to give a sense of “otherness.” The pull of ritual and unity (even in harshness) is still very strong. A person’s age and level of honor in society is evidenced in the number of syllables in their name. Idiosyncratic words and phrasing give an instant sense of rustic usage: “tyke” for children, “cott” for cottage (home), “threading” for sewing, “the Field” for a graveyard, for example. There is even an aspect of diversity in this second book, (something I missed in The Giver), albeit a downward layer: another society even more downtrodden than Kira’s village exists nearby. The people who come from the Fen are scorned by those in the village for being lazy, dirty and ignorant and the Fen dwellers do little to dispel those notions. Their vernacular, however, is more lilting and lyrical (“In the Fen, things is different. Many gots no pa. And them that gots them, they be scairt of them, ‘cause they hit something horrid.”).
Still, the notion that one individual can break free from the rutted path set before them is paramount. In The Giver, the populace was controlled through a removal of obstacles and a deeply conditioned uniformity unsullied by discontent. It is only when young Jonas is allowed to see memories of a more contentious past that he becomes aware of the loss of choice and lack of diversity (the “Sameness”) – and the loss of passion that comes from those choices, both good and bad.
The aspect of control is even more nuanced in Gathering Blue. Rather than a comfortable existence, most of the denizens of the village live in harsh, almost primitive conditions. Tradition is something that is known and expected, and exerts a very strong influence. But just as Jonas sees his world differently when his knowledge is expanded, Kira also undergoes a transformation in her awareness after being taken from the harshness of the village and given a place of comfort in exchange for the use of her talents. In The Giver, Jonas’ awareness is acknowledged to come with a great burden of responsibility. For Kira, the awareness comes slowly, as it is mitigated by her far more advantageous environment. Why question circumstances when you are being taken care of, and appreciated?
But as with Jonas in The Giver, Kira is a girl who has unique sensibilities. Not only does she appear to possess a coveted type of magic, but she also has a strength of character nurtured by an artistic mother and borne out of infirmity. Kira had to be strong in order to survive against the odds. It is this strength that allows her to see that for all the comforts, she is still in danger, and that those who appear to be champions may indeed be jailers, or even worse.
Without preaching or deep interludes of complex philosophies, Lowry weaves a story of awareness and social consciousness that appeals not only to children, but to all readers. The simplicity of Kira’s development, as well as the influence of some very compelling characters around her, (Matt, her young friend from the Fens; Thomas, the boy whose carving abilities match Kira’s skill with fabric; Annabella, the elder who teaches her the art of dyeing), help to lay out the story and open the reader to the choices that need to be made without heavy-handedness from the author. This is a morality tale that is imminently readable and fluid, and it contains just enough open-endedness in order to allow the reader to decide the validity of the outcome of Kira’s final actions. Although it is a book written for children, Gathering Blue is worthy of the attention of readers of any age.