Messenger by Lois Lowry

I was not introduced to Lois Lowry’s award-winning novel, The Giver, until I was halfway through college. As many other readers will agree, to finish The Giver is to want to know what happens after the ending, so I found out what happens after the ending. As it turns out, Lowry has written three more books in the same universe to create The Giver Quartet (including, in order, The Giver, Messenger, Gathering Blue, and Son). None of the sequels quite measures up to The Giver itself, but Messenger was the sequel that I enjoyed best. (I am disappointed to say that I was not a fan of any of the sequels, but that does not mean the books don’t pose interesting moral questions the same way The Giver does.)

Messenger ties together some of the characters and occurrences from both The Giver and Gathering Blue. The story centers on Matty, an adolescent boy who first appeared in Gathering Blue as a wild, playful child. Matty is now a citizen of Village, a town where the outcasts of other places (such as Community in The Giver or the uncouth town in Gathering Blue) have settled and dedicated themselves to living with kindness toward each other. Village is a sort of futuristically old-fashioned utopia.

Village is separated from other settlements by Forest, an animate jungle through which only a lucky few can travel without being given “warnings”–such as sentient pokes from a tree branch–that mean Forest will not allow them to travel through any longer. Matty is one of the few who have never received a warning, and so his niche in Village is that of a messenger, carrying communications back and forth between one settlement and the next. Matty hopes that soon he will receive his True Name, as all citizens of Village do when they reach adulthood, and be called Messenger.

Trouble arises in Village in the form of an event called Trademart, recurring meeting in which–it is later revealed–a man named Trade Master provides Villagers with all sorts of marvelous things in exchange for what makes them good, unique, and human. This trade is most noticeable in Teacher, a man who trades away his kindness and patience in order to be more attractive to a woman he is fond of. The Villagers who participate in Trademart, people who had always been broken in body but who are now corrupted in spirit, decide in the course of the story to close Village to any newcomers, battered and weakened people who have escaped from the cruelties of other settlements.

While these Villagers prepare to build a wall to block out the newcomers, Matty once again enters Forest in order to fetch his friend Kira, a lame girl from another settlement (and the protagonist from Gathering Blue), and bring her back to Village before the wall is built. But even Forest is affected by the evil of the citizens of Village; it becomes overgrown, rancid, and violent while Matty and Kira try to make their way back.

I kept waiting for a happy ending in this novel, but there wasn’t one. At the urging of Leader–who is later revealed to be Jonas from The Giver–Matty uses the “gift” he has been struggling with thus far in the story and heals Forest. Matty’s gift works. He restores Forest and the Villagers and even his puppy to all their former goodness and openness…at the expense of his own life. Lowry paints a picture of Village restored to its physical flaws but welcoming ways, and of Forest restored to its original beauty, but at the cost of Matty’s life in his efforts to redeem it all.

And then the book ended.

Now, obviously, Lowry was aiming to make Matty a Christ figure–paying the ultimate price out of love for a broken world, a world full of people who had traded their priceless goodness away for shallow things that will bring pleasure only for a short time. It is also obvious that Forest is a physical representation of the Villagers’ hearts. (Forests are also generally a symbol of growing up and/or the unknown when they appear in stories.) I don’t always pick up on metaphors, but I do catch some; I didn’t earn that English degree on sheer luck alone.

Any fan of Lowry knows that there has to be a good, healthy dose of suspension of disbelief (also mentioned in my review of The Jewel by Amy Ewing) for her stories to make any sense. I am willing to believe the metaphysical transactions of Trademart, and I am willing to believe in an animate Forest, and I am even willing to believe in Matty’s powers of healing and Leader’s powers to “see beyond.” Like I said, that’s all part of reading a Lois Lowry novel! Ultimately, though, I am not quite convinced that the metaphors work in this case. At the very least, they do not work as efficiently as I would have liked. Matty = Christ = redemption, yes, but unlike the typical Christian story (or analogy), Villagers were never made aware that they needed redemption at all. They never asked for it; it was simply thrust upon them. While the events in Son, the last novel in the Quartet, imply that Villagers are later aware of their faults and grateful for their healing, they had no part in bringing it about.

Of course, Christians believe that Christ died for everyone while they were at their worst, and that their acceptance of His redemption and forgiveness is in no way earned, just like the redemption Matty brought was in no way earned by the Villagers. It is simply given. Some also believe that, like the Villagers, nobody has any idea how much they need forgiveness and redemption until God opens their eyes to their need.

I think the point where the metaphor falls apart for me is that the sequence in Christianity is realization, repentance, forgiveness/healing. In the book, however, the sequence is forgiveness/healing, realization, and a repentance that comes too late to save Matty, who ultimately is just a boy who hardly knew what he was doing.

But I suppose that’s the thing about evil and forgiveness: it’s messy, it hurts, and even if forgiveness is granted and healing is brought, things may never be the way they were before.

Messenger also advocates the idea that it only takes a little leniency, a little give in morality, before your entire ethical framework comes crashing down around you.

Even so, my final judgment here is that there are too many gray areas without solid explanations to make for a satisfying read.

But this blog is getting a little too one-sided for my taste! What did you guys think of Messenger, or of any of the other books from the Quartet? What did you see that I missed here? Let me know below! Happy reading!

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