Childrens bookshelf: Son, Who Can That Be at This Hour?
After many smart books in the futuristic dystopian genre that has become so popular in young adult literature, it’s a pleasure to read Lois Lowry again. Her 1993 novel, “The Giver,” is considered the starting point for the trend that encompasses “The Hunger Games,” “Matched” and “Divergent.”
“The Giver” has become a standard text for middle-school English classes, and students often enjoy it so much that they go on to read Lowry’s related novels, “Gathering Blue” (2000) and “The Messenger” (2004), on their own.
Those books have plots and characters that intersect with “The Giver,” but now Lowry has – finally – returned to her original story in “Son,” (Houghton Mifflin, $17.99, ages 12 and up).
Though billed as a sequel, “Son” does not pick up from the famously ambiguous ending of “The Giver.” Every reader leaves that book wondering: What became of Jonas, the courageous 12-year-old boy who rescued baby Gabriel? After risking everything to flee their carefully controlled community, did Jonas and Gabriel find a world of freedom outside?
In “Son,” Lowry revisits the original community Jonas grew up in, where an unseen leadership cultivates “Sameness” to the level of an art. It turns out that Jonas, who discovers the truth about his cold-blooded society through his love for a less-than-perfect baby, was not alone in his affection for tiny Gabriel. Gabriel had a mother.
Claire is designated a “Birthmother” at the annual ceremony when 12-year-olds are assigned their life’s work. She is inseminated, gives birth to her first “product” with difficulty and duly gives “it” over to be raised in the Nurturing Center. Since her delivery was problematic, she is reassigned to work in the fish hatchery.
Because of her abrupt career switch, the authorities neglect to start Claire on the daily pill that suppresses emotion, and she can’t settle into her prescribed routine. When chance and longing reveal her child to her – No. 36 at the Nurturing Center – she forges a forbidden relationship with the baby, whose failure to thrive will mark him for destruction.
The reader who knows Gabriel’s story from “The Giver” will see all the familiar milestones from a new angle. When Jonas rescues Gabriel and flees, Claire follows. “Son” takes her on a long journey that only reunites her with Jonas and Gabriel at the end.
“Son” is by no means as perfect a novel as “The Giver”; I would not recommend it on its own. But as companion to “The Giver” and its fellows, it further develops Lowry’s deeply philosophical questions:
How do individuals fit together in communities? What drives people to find meaning in their lives? What do children owe parents and teachers? What do we owe people who show us kindness? Lowry’s writing is so filled with ideas that much of the dystopian genre seems poor, and merely stylish, by comparison.
“Merely stylish” is an accusation that can easily be flung at Lemony Snicket, author of “Who Can That Be at This Hour?” (Little, Brown, $15.99, ages 8-12). This novel initiates a new series, “All the Wrong Questions,” Snicket’s first since the wildly popular “Series of Unfortunate Events.” The next paragraphs may be less a book review than a public statement of support for anyone who secretly feels that the right question to ask about “All the Wrong Questions” is: “Oh, lord, can I withstand another onslaught of Lemony Snicket mania?”
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy Lemony Snicket’s tongue in his cheek. But as Groucho Marx supposedly said about a cigar, “I take it out of my mouth once in a while.”
The pseudonymous Snicket devotes himself entirely to the cultivation of his persona, in which constant obfuscation is an important element. He refers to nothing but himself – with the occasional oblique book reference thrown in, along with his signature definitions (“a word which here means ...”).
Legions of fans will have fun ferreting out the references in this supposedly autobiographical work, a Maltese-Falcon-flavored memoir of the author’s childhood spent as an apprentice in a shadowy organization that appears to be kidnapping him while he is hoodwinking them.
The book’s elaborate advance publicity suggests that the autobiographical tidbits to be gleaned here are more revealing than those in his earlier “Unauthorized Autobiography” – a typical bit of Snicketry that will make your head hurt if you try to sort it out.