The Memories We're Made Of

By Beth Schwartzapfel ’01 / July/August 2014
July 1st, 2014

Once, while researching a magazine article about medical hypnosis, Lois Lowry allowed a hypnotist to “regress her age.” Soon she was six years old, standing barefoot under a pine tree in her grandmother’s yard in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. She felt the pine needles under her feet. She smelled her grandmother’s roses. She heard a mourning dove cry in a nearby tree. Lowry was unimpressed by the hypnotist’s success. “I can do that any time I want,” she shrugs. “If I were home alone and writing about a six-year-old, I could become a six-year-old and be inside that six-year-old.”

Jesse Burke
Lois Lowry '58 has written more than forty books.  
At seventy-seven, Lowry has used her memory to write more than forty books. Two of them—Number the Stars and The Giver—won the Newbery Medal, the most prestigious literary award for children’s literature. This summer the first-ever movie of The Giver, starring Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep, will be released. Lowry published her first book, A Summer to Die, in 1977, when she was forty years old, and she has written one or two books each year since. Nine novels have featured the precocious, bookish ten-year-old Anastasia Krupnik, who first appeared in 1978 and has since won the hearts of two generations of middle-school-aged children. Number the Stars, which won the Newbery Medal in 1990, focuses on a ten-year-old girl who helps hide her Jewish friend in Nazi-occupied Denmark.

But Lowry’s best and most influential novel may be The Giver, which won the 1994 Newbery. Set in a nameless community that prizes “Sameness” and predictability, The Giver is the story of twelve-year-old Jonas and his growing realization of the enormous price his community pays for its seemingly perfect life, a life without prejudice, violence, inequality, or even rudeness. In this community, love is a word too broad to have meaning, and citizens who have reached puberty must take a pill each day for the rest of their lives to prevent “Stirrings.” When a hungry four-year-old Jonas says he is starving, he is taken aside and corrected. He is hungry. No one in the community, he is told, “was starving, had ever been starving, would ever be starving.”

The Giver, the first in a quartet of novels, has sold more than five million copies and taken its place alongside The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird in the middle school canon. (All three are regulars on the American Library Association’s Top 100 Banned or Challenged Books.) “It’s difficult to imagine, in our post-Hunger Games world,” novelist Robin Wasserman wrote two years ago in a New York Times Book Review appraisal of The Son, the fourth book in the quartet, “how unusual and unsettling it was [in the early 1990s] for a children’s book to touch on euthanasia, suicide, and murder, to couch it all in a bleak vision of political and emotional oppression, and to leave its protagonist’s ultimate fate undecided. In many ways, Lowry invented the contemporary young adult dystopian novel.”

At the heart of The Giver is the subject of memory. Lowry describes her own memory as “eidetic”—so visually vivid that her recollections are almost cinematographic. She has striking blue eyes, short silver hair, and the friendly, slightly reserved manner of a shy person accustomed to making conversation with strangers.  Her memories from the childhood years when she lived in her grandparents’ stately house are still palpable. She remembers the African American cook, a nurturing figure in contrast to Lowry’s cold and distant grandmother. Lowry remembers the rage she felt as a child at the injustice that the cook had never been to school, had never learned to read or write. She remembers all the adult talk of the Pacific, a distant place where her father, a career army officer whose face she struggled to remember, was fighting a “war,” a word she had sometimes heard but didn’t understand. And she remembers her mother reading to her the first book that revealed what strange and powerful things books could be.

Lowry’s bedroom was across the hall from her sister’s, and before bed each night their mother would sit in the hallway between the two darkened rooms and read aloud. One night she began reading The Yearling. It was, Lowry says, “the first time I had ever become so one with a book character.” In Lowry’s nine-year-old mind, she and Jody Baxter had much in common, because he looked like her—she could tell from the illustrations in the 1946 edition—and loved animals as she did.

But unlike Lowry’s pleasant childhood, in which her grandfather was president of the local bank and the family played Chinese checkers in front of the fireplace each night, the Baxters “lived this life of terrible hardship and deprivation,” Lowry recalls, as they struggled to survive in the swamps of central Florida. In one illustration that Lowry vividly remembers, Jody is keeping vigil over his Pa, who has just been bitten by a rattlesnake. The Yearling was nothing like The Bobbsey Twins or Mary Poppins, examples of the books Lowry usually read, books in which “nobody really suffered,” she says. “These people really suffered. And that was overwhelming to me.”

As Jody’s snakebitten father teeters on the edge of death, the boy buries his face in the bed, praying. He was torn with hate for all death, Lowry’s mother read aloud, and pity for all aloneness. It was the first time Lowry had seen her mother cry, and though Lowry sobbed along with her, she didn’t realize why until much later. As an adult, Lowry understood that The Yearling had done for her mother the best of what books can do. She wasn’t crying for the boy in the story; she was crying for herself.

Jesse Burke
As Lowry began writing The Giver, she asked herself: What if you could manipulate human memory? What if no one had to remember things that had once made them sad, or scared, or embarrassed? 

“She’s a woman alone with three young children,” Lowry recalls. “Her husband is on an island in the Pacific where this war is raging.”

Lowry’s older sister, Helen, thought The Yearling was boring. Lowry often reflects on her relationship to her sister, and many of her stories about Helen capture how different they were. Helen was the glamorous sister, the one who always kept her clothes clean and her nose wiped. The one who knew the right thing to say. After only a few chapters of The Yearling, Lowry recalls, Helen shut her door and went back to reading Cherry Ames, Student Nurse.

When Helen started first grade, she would come home and play school with Lois, who was then only three. She taught Lois everything she’d learned about how letters made sounds and sounds made words and words made sentences. As a result, when Lois entered first grade, “I became a problem for my teacher,” she jokes. Lowry was given permission to read Anne of Green Gables while her classmates struggled over Dick and Jane. She eventually skipped second grade, which meant missing the second-grade class trip to the teacher’s farm, where the kids got to ride ponies. She still remembers the lonely feeling of walking past the open doorway of her school’s second-grade classroom, hearing her first-grade friends having fun without her. That feeling of being singled out, separate and alone, would play an important role in her fiction.
Helen went on to attend Penn State, where she became a home economics major nominated for homecoming queen. When the time came for Lowry to pick a college, she applied to Pembroke to pursue her dream of becoming a writer. Her father, whom she describes as “a military man, accustomed to underlings (which included his wife and children) obeying his orders,” told her: “Over my dead body.” He wanted Lois to follow her sister to Penn State. But, as Lowry recalls in “Train Rides,” her essay in The Brown Reader: 50 Writers Remember College Hill, “I had visited her there, had glimpsed her sorority-centered life, and wanted no part of it.”

She overcame her father’s resistance by winning a scholarship. Once she arrived on campus, she enrolled in a sophomore-year writing workshop with Professor Charles Philbrick. It made her feel that being a writer was really possible. “Each time I left his office and walked back to my dorm,” she writes in “Train Rides,” “it was in a state of exhilaration, of a yearning for experience, almost giddy with a love of language and its possibilities.”

Still, this was in 1956, when women, as the saying goes, attended college to get their “MRS degree.” The teenaged Lois Lowry considered herself “deeply literary—I didn’t think of myself as somebody who was there to get a husband. And yet that’s the form our social life took.” She met a Brown man in the NROTC program who soon gave her his fraternity pin and then an engagement ring. After he graduated, he was posted to a naval base in San Diego. At the end of Lowry’s sophomore year, she dropped out of Pembroke to marry and be with him. She was given the book The Navy Wife as a wedding gift, and, just as her father’s peripatetic army career had taken her childhood family to Hawaii, New York, and Tokyo, so her marriage to Donald Lowry took the young couple from San Diego to New London, Key West, and Charleston, and then, after his naval obligations were over, to Cambridge so he could attend Harvard Law School.

Finally settling in Portland, Maine, they raised their four kids in an old farmhouse full of books, where, Lowry writes in her memoir Looking Back: A Book of Memories, “there was always a dog asleep on the kitchen floor, a cat curled on a windowsill, a guinea pig in some child’s bedroom, and a horse in the barn.” Even amid the busy chaos of her life as a mother, Lowry continued to write and send her stories to magazines. Her rejection letters, she recalls, “were nice rejection letters,” and they encouraged her to keep writing.

Her luck changed in 1975, when Redbook published her story “Crow Call.” Intended for adults, it was an autobiographical story told from the point of view of her nine-year-old self. It centered on a brightly colored men’s wool hunting shirt she had longingly admired in a shop window. Her father had bought it for her when he was home on leave, even though it was so large it hung below her knees. He “probably saw the purchase as a way of endearing himself to a daughter who was a virtual stranger to him,” Lowry writes in Looking Back. “If so, it worked.… I loved that shirt. I loved my father for buying it for me. I loved the entire world for being the kind of world where such a shirt, and such a father, existed.”

When her own children were teenagers and needed less of Lowry’s time and attention, she finally finished college, earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of Southern Maine in 1973. She began work on her first book after an editor of young adult books who’d been impressed by “Crow Call” asked if she wanted to write a novel. All the giddiness of libraries and words came back to her, and suddenly “I wasn’t a very good housewife anymore,” Lowry says. On her website she writes, simply: “My children grew up in Maine. So did I.”

Lowry and her husband divorced in 1977. Faced for the first time with having to make a living, she took on freelance magazine assignments. She didn’t need to do that for long. That year her first novel, A Summer to Die, was published to critical acclaim and commercial success. In it, she returned to a story she had been telling herself about her sister, Helen, for many years. When Lowry’s husband was in law school, Helen had died of cancer at the age of twenty-eight. At the time, Lowry had been broke and exhausted. The couple had just had their fourth child and lived in what she calls a “crummy Cambridge apartment” where they could barely scrape together the $90 rent.

Lowry remembers her desperate need to tell someone—anyone—about her sister’s life. Lowry’s husband had been too preoccupied with school to sit and listen for very long, so Lowry had turned to her oldest daughter, who was four. “Even my child, after a while, was bored with that,” she says. “So I think it’s a story I began to tell to myself.”

Courtesy Lois Lowry
Lowry, at left, with her sister, Helen, who died of cancer at twenty-eight. "I would recreate these sisters fictionally again and again... They are always Helen and me." 
A Summer to Die is Lowry’s first retelling of that story. The two main characters are sisters: Molly, beautiful and popular, dreams of becoming a wife and a mother. The narrator, Meg, is bookish, reflective, and self-conscious about her looks. She’s more comfortable behind the lens of a camera than among the boys at school.

In books, Lowry writes in Looking Back, “I would re-create these sisters fictionally again and again: the older, poised and competent; the younger, eager and impetuous. I named them Molly and Meg; Natalie and Nancy; Jessica and Elizabeth.

“They are always Helen and me.”

Years later, photographs of Helen hung on the walls of the nursing home where Lowry’s father, then ninety, lived. His memory was failing. “That’s your sister,” he said happily. Then, puzzled: “I can’t remember exactly what happened to her.”

Lowry hated to break his heart, but she felt she had to be honest. “She died, Dad,” she told her father, and watched his face fall. This happened again and again. And she began to wonder whether it might be easier—safer, more comfortable—to forget.

And so Lowry began writing The Giver. She asked herself a question: What if you could manipulate human memory? What if no one had to remember things that had once made them sad, or scared, or embarrassed? Lowry had never been a fan of science fiction or fantasy, but she knew that this book would have to be set in the future.

In The Giver, Jonas is selected to train for the most honored role in the community: the Receiver of Memory. The current Receiver of Memory, a man prematurely aged by the burden of all the memories he must keep, becomes the Giver, who will forget every memory once he has passed it on to Jonas. “The time of the memories,” as the Giver describes it, was messy and painful. Jonas will feel things no one in his community has ever felt: the pain of war and death, the joy of experiencing snow and festive holidays for the first time. Long ago, “back and back and back,” as the Giver puts it, the community gave up its communal memories so that it could remain untroubled and could avoid making “wrong” decisions.

The memories the Giver passes on to Jonas are vivid: a soldier dying, thirsty, on a battlefield while around him dying horses kick their hooves toward the sky; a family celebrating Christmas; poachers hacking ivory from an elephant; another elephant coming forward to touch its maimed companion and wail over its loss. No one person experienced all these events. They are the collective remembrances of human history.  

Only the Receiver is burdened with these memories; only the Receiver has access to the treasury of books from the past. His role is to remember the world before “Sameness.” He bears the burden of history alone, so that when the community is faced with an unfamiliar problem, the elders may turn to him for wisdom.

Thus Lowry reimagines the aspect of memories that intrigues her the most: their individuality. Nobody in the world has exactly your memories. “Even if you and your twin brother went to the same birthday party,” Lowry is fond of saying, “you’ll both remember it differently.” Even her memories of her sister, crucial as they are to Lowry’s sense of self, are her memories, experienced through the prism of her own personality. Lowry was surprised, for example, when Helen’s widower told Lois that he’d always thought of her as the outgoing sister.

And so, while receiving these memories, Jonas discovers that what he thought was happiness is in fact a bland contentment that obscures subtle lies and hidden horrors. By giving up pain and spontaneity and individuality, the community also gives up true joy—and love. No experience from Lowry’s life exemplifies this tension better than the story of her son Grey, an Air Force flight instructor stationed in Germany, where he had married a German woman in a beautiful ceremony “conducted,” Lowry says, “in a language I do not speak and cannot understand.” One passage was in English, however; it was from the Book of Ruth: Where you go, I will go. Your people will be my people. “How small the world has become,” Lowry thought happily to herself. “We are all each other’s people now.”

In 1995, two years after The Giver appeared and when Grey’s daughter Nadine was nineteen months old, Grey called Lowry on Mother’s Day to tell her that Nadine had sung him the dopey theme song from Barney in her crib that morning—I love you, you love me…—and Grey had almost started to cry. “I never really got it—the parent thing,” he told his mother. “And now I do.”

A month later, Lowry’s daughter-in-law Margret called from Germany with the news that Grey’s plane had crashed and he had been killed.

As time passed, Lowry thought again about what she’d wondered years before: might it be easier—safer, more comfortable—to forget the suffering in our lives? Lowry says that in the case of her son she wouldn’t give up the memory of that day, entwined as it is with memories of Grey’s life: when he was born, when he walked for the first time, when he became an Eagle Scout, when he graduated from school.

“It’s who we are, it’s what we’re made of—the combination of good and bad memories,” she says. “The memory of him includes the memory of his death. I can’t conceive of obliterating that, because to me that’s an obliteration of my son.”

One of the most mysterious concepts in The Giver is “Elsewhere.” It is where unwanted members of the community go and is the mysterious place to which the old are “released” after a celebration of their lives. No one other than the Giver knows where Elsewhere is; no one else seems the least bit curious about it, even though the entire world beyond the community is unknown. “I thought there was only us,” Jonas says early in his training. “I thought there was only now.”

Lowry remembers an “elsewhere” in her own childhood that influenced The Giver. When she was eleven years old, she and her mother, sister, and brother moved to Tokyo to join their father, who was stationed there. The family settled into an American-style house with American neighbors in a gated American enclave. The movie theater showed American movies, and its tiny elementary school taught an American curriculum.

“I am not a particularly adventurous child, nor am I a rebellious one,” Lowry explained in her 1994 Newbery Award speech. “But I have always been curious. I have a bicycle. Again and again—countless times without my parents’ knowledge—I ride my bicycle out the back gate of the fence that surrounds our comfortable, familiar, safe American community.” She rode down a hill into a district called Shibuya, “crowded with shops and people and theaters and street vendors.” She remembers the smell of fish and fertilizer, “music and shouting and the clatter of wooden shoes and wooden sticks and wooden wheels.”

Lowry remembers shyly watching the schoolchildren her own age shouting and playing in their dark blue uniforms, “and they watch me in return; but we never speak to one another.” She remembers a woman reaching out to touch her blond hair. The woman said kirei-des—you’re pretty—but Lowry misunderstood. She thought at first the woman had said kirai des—I dislike you—and felt ashamed and embarrassed.

To cross elsewhere we must connect with other people, and through them experience empathy, bravery, and doubt. One of the reasons The Giver resonates with young people is that in Jonas they see themselves: someone who at twelve longs to break out of the adult prescriptions about what to do and what to think. Brought to life by the memories he has received, Jonas follows his heart, bravely risking his life to save Gabe, a baby he has come to love. But Lowry insists that all her characters are heroes in their own way. They all struggle with the dangers and pitfalls of reaching across a divide to make a human connection.

“I remember once again how comfortable, familiar, and safe my parents had sought to make my childhood by shielding me from Elsewhere,” Lowry said in her Newbery speech. “But I remember, too, that my response had been to open the gate again and again.”

Breaking down the walls between here and Elsewhere—the things that separate us from others—is, at the end of the day, the work of books. It’s what motivates us to read, and what inspires Lowry to write.

“Each time a child opens a book, he pushes open the gate that separates him from Elsewhere,” Lowry said in her Newbery speech. “The man that I named The Giver passed along to the boy knowledge, history, memories, color, pain, laughter, love, and truth. Every time you place a book in the hands of a child, you do the same thing.”

Beth Schwartzapfel is a BAM contributing editor.

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