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Book Review: Gathering Blue
Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry: Introduction and Summary
Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry, who is the author of The Giver and Number the Stars, imagines in this book a society that is very much the opposite of the technologically sophisticated false utopia depicted in The Giver. As in The Giver, the society in Gathering Blue has faults that are unearthed through events surrounding the life of a teenager who stands apart from that society by virtue of their unusual spiritual sensitivity.
Gathering Blue follows Kira, a teenage girl living in a rather crude and primitive village with virtually no technology or tall buildings. It's a post-apocalyptic society, where a technologically advanced civilization similar to our own had been destroyed by cataclysmic events that were together in the collective memory of Kira's people, called "The Ruin". Every year, the villagers hold a festival at which a singer sings a song telling the story of this "ruin".
The book opens on Kira when her mother had just died. Kira had no father, as when she was a baby, he had been "taken by beasts". A sickness took her mother, but did not touch Kira herself. However, because of fear of sickness, all of their belongings and their wooden home had had to be burned.
Since Kira had a deformed leg since birth, making her weak, she attracts the ire of a woman named Vandara. Vandara, along with some other women, accuses her of being useless and wants to use the space where Kira had once lived to build a pen for the children. She thinks Kira is weak and therefore "the way" is that she should have been killed as a baby.
This leads the accuser and accused to end up facing the justice system of the town, run by a group of tribal elders. Men in this society can read but women are not allowed, so Kira is astonished when one of them uses writing to record Vandara's accusations and repeat them verbatim. Kira is defended, but not allowed to return to the space in which she once lived with her mother. This allows Vandara to have the space to build the pen she wanted.
Kira was not good at anything that could be called useful work, which made her marginalized by society. But, like with The Giver, this protagonist is pulled aside by elders who recognize in her the potential to do something special, recognized in her a gift that other people did not have. She was an artist. Her mother had also had this gift, with threads.
The singer at the annual festival wore a robe that was decorated with rich embroidery. The embroidery was important to Kira's people, because it told through art the story of the ruin. Kira soon learned about how to make dyes from the same old woman who had taught her mother, but her mother had not known how to make blue. Kira quickly learns the work assigned to her, repairing the singer's robe in places where the embroidery has faded or threads have fallen out.
But the mystery of blue troubles her. The dyer woman she learned from said "They have blue, yonder", and more troubling than that, said "there be no beasts", as in, the beasts in the woods that supposedly killed people, which Kira had feared all her life, didn't exist. When she voiced the concern over this thing the old woman had said, the woman was dismissed as losing her wits in old age. But Kira knew the woman was sharp about everything else she had told Kira, so why "fuzzy" about this? It didn't make sense. And then, making things worse, that woman dies suddenly and for no reason Kira can think of. People in the village just shrug it off as "old people die", because in their primitive and cruel society, nobody wants to keep old people around anyway.
Kira ends up unraveling the mystery surrounding her people, finding blue, and becoming an artist whose unique voice is the antidote to her own people's savage inhumanity.
Analysis & Critique:
Gathering Blue paints a picture of a society that is technologically the opposite of that in The Giver, but which suffers some of the same socio-psychological ills. In both societies, weakness is forbidden, euthanasia is common, and reflection is discouraged. Both societies are quite hostile to change in the status quo. Art is repressed in both; Gathering Blue, the artistically gifted are put aside in their own compound as children and given the projects which are seen fit for them to work on by the elders. In The Giver, the memories of things like color and music and emotions are lost, contained only within one mind, to whom alone all such memories are trusted. Like all dystopias, the powers that be think that their repressions are necessary for restraining humanity's destructive impulses or maintaining order. But in both, a sensitive teenage protagonist shows them the error of their way of thinking through courageous rebellion.
Gathering Blue is at its heart a book about what it means to be an artist. It's not just about making beautiful things to look at, but about telling stories, retelling collective memory, and also about giving society a direction and a purpose for the future. In making images, people record history while simultaneously, they shape the minds of the people the images are intended for, and therefore, shape the future. It shows that the most marginalized people in society can sometimes be the ones who contribute to the world of art the most valiantly, whose message is the most resonant and pure. Gathering Blue, in short, speaks to the ability of the artist to heal his or her society.
It's a relatively short book, but I feel that it's a powerful one, and it will certainly appeal to teenagers and other people who also feel like they're too sensitive for the brutalities and indifference to suffering found in our own world. I like that it inspires the hope that the next generation will light a torch that has long been buried and forgotten, to lead us into a better way of doing things. Reading this book along with The Giver is something I would recommend, especially in a book club, because the comparison of the two books would be a good generator of interesting discussion. There are actually 4 books in a series with The Giver, including this one, Son, and Messenger.