Book: Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry
Age/Genre: Young Adult Dystopian
Reading Activity: Think about how your favorite creative talent can both be celebrated and exploited by society.
Content Notes: Ableism
A while ago, I stumbled across Gathering Blue in a thrift store. I was pulled in by Lois Lowry’s name, and even more intrigued once I saw “Companion to The Giver.” I had never known there were more books related to The Giver, and was excited to one day check it out. Since we reviewed The Giver last month, I figured now was the perfect time to dive further into Lowry’s dystopian works. What’s more, I learned right as we were about to publish our review of The Giver that the series is a quartet. That’s right, there are two more books, and from what I’ve read about the fourth one, it looks like I’m going to get my wish to see Lowry’s take on reproductive dystopia. I hopped on my favorite thrifty book website and now have all four to work through in the next few months. But without further ado, let’s talk about Gathering Blue.
Gathering Blue follows Kira, a young teen who was born with a twisted leg. According to her village’s customs, she should have been left in the fields to be eaten by the beasts, but her mother protected Kira and refused to let her be taken. At the beginning of the book, Kira’s mother has just passed away from a sudden illness. Some of the village women want Kira’s cottage and land for themselves, claiming that Kira is too weak to contribute meaningfully to the community. Kira must face a trial to determine her future.
The village elders find a job for Kira, using her natural talent with textiles and colors to repair the ancient robe that dictates the village’s past and future. The robe is worn by the singer who performs the oral history of the village at each annual Gathering. Kira is housed in the comfortable Council Edifice, where she experiences indoor plumbing for the first time. She is welcomed by Thomas, a woodcarver about her age. Like her, Thomas was brought to live in the Edifice after his parents died. His task is similar to Kira’s; he must repair the wooden staff that the singer uses as a guide for the song at each Gathering. Both Kira and Thomas will be charged with adding to their artifacts after the initial restorations are complete.
Kira is already a skilled seamstress and embroiderer, but she has not worked a lot with dyes. She is told to learn from Anabella, an old woman who can teach her the plants and processes needed to create different colors of dye. Kira’s mom had long desired the proper plants to make the color blue, but even Anabella does not have these. She hints that “yonder” does, however, and mysteriously dismisses Kira’s fears about the woods, claiming that the beasts the people have been conditioned to fear do not exist.
Kira, Thomas, and Kira’s younger friend Matt encounter several mysteries that lead them to question their village elders, and the setup of their society in general. Kira’s curiosity will reveal answers about her own past as well as local events. Like The Giver, Gathering Blue ends relatively open-ended, leaving you to imagine what would happen next.
As you may have gleaned, this is called a “companion” rather than a “sequel,” for good reason. While it could feasibly take place in the same world (and there may be hints that it does), none of the characters from The Giver are present, and the village is set up in a very different manner. I’m going to reserve most of my thoughts on how the series works together for my review of the final book, Son. But I will say that both of these books explore how different forms of society can be used to exploit. In Gathering Blue, people’s daily lives are less controlled, but this allows for more violence amongst the people. Since most in the village live in extreme poverty, living in makeshift cotts and having access only to the food they can grow or hunt, the people compete for resources. Meanwhile, the Council Elders live lavishly in comparison, with running water, regular meals, and other comforts. Seeing Kira figure out how to use a bathroom was somewhat entertaining, but mainly informative about the differences in class that exist in this society.
In The Giver, those seen as weak were purged from the Community, with most citizens under the impression that these people were sent “Elsewhere.” In Gathering Blue, the weak are left for the beasts. Though Gathering Blue’s method is more overtly cruel, there is deception in both. Both also contain exceptions where people are kept despite “flaws” if they are seen as useful to the community. In Gathering Blue, talented individuals are collected in order to be used by the Elders. As long as they perform their duties and don’t cause trouble, they are treated well. It takes Kira a while to question whether she really has as much freedom as she thinks. The Council seems to intentionally bring in children who are easily manipulable and hesitant to question the people who have saved their lives and improved their living conditions.
You might be wondering how Kira’s leg affects her life, and how that is portrayed in the novel. Kira’s leg has always been a part of her existence, so she is used to it. She only notices or mentions it when it affects others, like the speed of her walking, or the noise she makes when sneaking around. Her friends innovatively help her problem solve and find workarounds. I think this was a great look at how society creates dilemmas for those who are different, often in the name of efficiency.
The Community in The Giver was highly regulated, with people having very little say over what they did for a living, or the trajectory of their lives. In Gathering Blue, people have more immediate agency, but if they make choices outside the desires of the elders, they “succumb mysteriously to illness” or “are attacked by beasts.” This illusion of freedom and choice is an aspect of most societal models, and I think introducing this concept to children is important for helping them examine the world around them.
I enjoyed this just as much as The Giver, and when my friends’ kids are of an age to explore dystopian worlds, this series will definitely be one I recommend. Next month, I’ll share my thoughts on the third in the series, Messenger.