Lois Lowry’s Messenger takes place a few years after the events of The Giver and Gathering Blue. Jonas has settled down in the seemingly genuine utopian village where Kira’s blind father, Christopher, found refuge. Jonas has become the village Leader, with the simple and descriptive name of Leader, and Christopher has become the village Seer, with, ditto. Matty is still Matty, if a little cleaner and more educated, now hoping to earn the name of Messenger. We also get a hint that just maybe the community of The Giver has been forced to change, just a little, by Jonas’ departure, and that they are willing to forgive and forget.
(That’s Jonas’ interpretation. My interpretation is that the community is still so against change that they are doing everything they can do to ensure that no one in the community knows that alternatives exist—even though alternatives are clearly around.)
Sure, the village does not have the technology that the community of The Giver does, but they have plenty to eat and drink, they are relatively healthy, and they know how to see colors, and how to love. All seems ideal. But Lowry does not believe in utopias, and the evil of the village and the nearby forest is growing.
The evil of the village is easier to understand. Once a place that welcomed outsiders, regardless of appearance and abilities, the village—or at least many of its residents—is now concerned about what changes these new people will bring to the village—not to mention concerns about housing, feeding and clothing said residents. Given that the technologically advanced society in The Giver had chosen not to increase its population out of concerns about the effects of overpopulation, and the not at all technologically advanced society in Gathering Blue had real concerns about feeding its population, to the point of exiling or killing those unable to work, this appears to be a widely shared concern. Indeed, so far this is the only place in this series where residents are not concerned about population increases.
The Seer, however, greatly fears the advent of what he terms selfishness, as does the Leader. They are also concerned about the arrival of the Trademaster, a mysterious figure who is willing to trade literally anything—for a price. And by literally anything, I mean he is able to transform Mentor—the schoolteacher—from a hideously ugly man with a large birthmark but kindly, loveable personality into a younger, handsome man with a not nearly as loveable personality. For youth and looks, Mentor has traded his deepest self, and not surprisingly, his daughter Jean—someone Matty is starting to like very much—is distressed.
Matty has other concerns as well. He has discovered that, like Jonas and Kira, he has a gift: the ability to heal with his hands. This is not a gift the forest seems to like very much (perhaps because it is against the natural order of things) and it is not a gift Matty finds easy to use.
Meanwhile, as the Trademaster makes more and more trades with the villagers, shouts to shut off the village from outsiders grow louder, no matter how much Leader and Seer try to speak against them. Eventually, the village agrees that they will set a cut off date: after that, the village will not accept anyone from outside. This distresses several people who still have family members making the trek to the village, and also upsets Seer, since his daughter, Kira, still lives in her old village. Seer does not want to die without seeing Kira again, and he asks Matty to let Kira know what is happening—and to bring her back.
Easier said than done. After a short detour to catch us up with what’s happening in Kira’s old village since we left them about seven years ago (women can read now, yay! Big changes, everyone, big changes!) Matty and Kira start traipsing through the forest, only to find that the forest is rising against them.
It’s difficult to explain just why I feel such a strong irritation towards this section, and indeed towards this book. Part of it is that the whole idea of the sentient forest able to attack people and kill them, while sorta hinted at in the earlier book, I guess, really seems to come out of nowhere here. Though I guess it somewhat explains just why the society in The Giver is so carefully controlled—they don’t just have a history of problems with previous ice ages and overpopulation and war, but also they are living near sentient plants able to kill people. And, given their technology, it’s possible that the sentient plants arose from some genetic tinkering here and there (CUE MAD SCIENTISTS) which might also explain just why the other cultures we hear of our encounter have avoided technology and even electricity altogether, even as they happily embrace Shakespeare.
But that doesn’t quite explain why the forest was so, well, quiescent in the previous book, and why it’s chosen now to rise up, or why the Trademaster has chosen now to arrive and turn the village and the forest evil. Because it’s been such a success, and he needs it ended? Because he needs the psychic gifts that some of the villagers have?
And, more to the point, this whole mysterious figure of evil and evil forest sits uneasily with the earlier books in this series, which were focused on the inner decisions of societies, of the choices people make. Oh, certainly, as the text makes clear, the villagers willingly choose their trades. And equally certainly, psychic powers and a mix of science fiction and fantasy had always been part of this series before. But the earlier books had focused on the relationships between people, not the relationships between people and mysterious entities of dubious moral character.
More to the point, Jonas and Kira had made their choices. (And they continue to get to make their choices here.) Matty, in the end, has his choice in part made for him. This is, in a way, far more realistic than what happens to Jonas and Kira: in life, we don’t always get to make our own choices. But in a series that has so far focused on human choices, having that removed, even partly, by a supernatural entity just feels wrong.
Readers who have read the previous two books will doubtless want to continue—and nothing in this book stopped me from heading on to the fourth book of the series (coming up soon in this reread.) But I still rather wish this book had kept the focus on the difficult, and all too human choices, that people—and kids—find themselves having to make.
Mari Ness is fairly sure that the trees in the back yard are not sentient, although she’s occasionally had some questions about the firebushes. She lives in central Florida.