Book: Messenger by Lois Lowry
Age/Genre: YA Dystopian
Reading Activity: What items or activities comforted you as a child? Did your talents lean toward these?
Content Notes: Death, Anti-Immigration Sentiments
In the author interview in the back of my copy of Gathering Blue, Lois Lowry talked about the idea of focusing on one of the characters (Matt), in the third book, which she was at that time planning to conclude the series. She ended up following through with that idea, though she did eventually decide to make the series a quartet instead of a trilogy. As such, Messenger acts in many ways as a conclusion to a series. It ties the first two books together by bringing back several characters from both and providing more details about the world where the books take place.
In Gathering Blue, Matt is pretty young, I would guess about 10 years old or so. He befriends Kira, a teen, and helps her by bringing her the plant to make the color blue, as well as a person who explains to her that certain things she believes about her life are untrue.
Messenger takes place about six years later. Matty (In the village that Kira and Matty are from, people’s names are changed as they age, starting at birth with 1 syllable, and adding a syllable at adolescence, adulthood, and finally, old age. Elders with 4 syllable names are to be respected because of the wisdom that usually comes with so much lived experience.) lives with a blind man in the village where he found the plant for blue dyes, which is simply called Village. This Village is a haven for the outcasts of other villages, and has experienced significant growth through the years, as more and more people look to escape strict rules and oppressive lifestyle requirements.
In Village, people are given their “true names” once they reach adulthood or, in the case of adults, express their roles in the community. Leader is generally in charge, though he runs a pretty democratic ship, allowing all decisions to be guided by majority preference. Mentor is the schoolteacher and a strong voice in the community. Trademaster runs the trade mart. I’m not sure I love the idea that your true name is just the description of your job (though that concept certainly has its place in our own world), but in a community where your job is determined based on your natural skills and passions, I think it works.
Matty hopes to earn the name “Messenger,” since he is often asked to deliver important messages from Leader to other people in Village, and sometimes between villages. Leaving Village requires going through Forest, which has some level of sentience. Forest seems to have a sense of people’s intentions. Forest refuses to let people leave Village, sending warnings (often small injuries from roots or thorns) to those it thinks are likely to leave, and entangling those who try anyway. Matty always gets through Forest without any warnings, which he believes is because Forest knows he is planning to return.
As the book opens, Matty speculates on changes in the community, many connected with the Trade Mart. Matty notes that people’s personalities seem to be changing with the trades they make, which may be connected to the growing campaign to close Village to newcomers. Some people, led by Mentor, argue that there aren’t enough resources for more people, and they shouldn’t have to deal with strangers. Matty and Leader are among those who want Village to remain a haven for those who need it. All the adults in Village benefitted from Village’s welcoming community, and the idea of closing comes with other changes in how people treat each other and interact. Despite Leader’s preferences, the community votes to close Village. Matty has 3 weeks to inform nearby communities that newcomers will no longer be welcome, and fetch Kira, who has been planning to move to Village once she enacts certain changes where she lives. But Forest is changing as well, and the journey becomes more dangerous than Matty expects.
I like that we get to see how Kira’s situation has changed in the 6 years between the books, but I would love to see more. I think if there were a few chapters from Kira’s perspective, the connections between the characters and the books could be stronger. In Gathering Blue, both of Kira’s main friends are male, and I’m really happy to see that neither becomes a love interest, and both remain her close friends. While the community in The Giver doesn’t have romantic pairings and discourages sexual relations, those in Gathering Blue and Messenger seem to have similar interpersonal relationships to our own society, though romantic relationships are not the focus of any of the plots. Messenger has more focus on love interests than either of the other two books, though that type of attraction/relationship is still relegated mostly to the sidelines.
Messenger has a lot more magical elements than the other two books. I felt like The Giver had very few supernatural elements. Gathering Blue introduced the possibility of certain people having innate gifts, possibly bestowed by some higher power or supernatural element. In Messenger, Forest has some sort of consciousness, and some people’s gifts are what I would consider supernatural powers. There is healing by touch, and some telepathic communication. Even though this is a change in direction from the other two books, I do think it works with the world, and operates well with the real-world commentary that Lowry is going for.
While the other books focus on people discovering flaws in their established communities, Messenger shows a fluid community changing to be more like the world around it. It shows how the established system of open-mindedness can quickly be subverted, and how people’s attitudes about one issue (in this case, building a wall to exclude others) can affect how they treat people in general. Like the other books, no hard conclusions are given in the end. Lowry lets her readers make their own conclusions, showing nuance in how people act, and the reasons for changes in personal perspective.
There are certain aspects of this book I’m not going into because they include spoilers for Gathering Blue. I highly recommend reading this whole series. Each of the first 3 books can be completed within a few hours. My copies have all included interviews with Lowry, as well as discussion questions, which work great for the intended audience of young students, but provide food for thought for readers of all ages.
Next month, I’ll be completing the series with Son, which will finally provide the reproductive dystopia that I’ve wanted to see from Lowry since the mention of the birthing centers in The Giver. I’m excited to share the results!