Gathering Blue

by Lois Lowry

Houghton Mifflin, 2000

215 pages

Lois Lowry is easily one of my favorite children’s authors, and Gathering Blue is my favorite Lois Lowry novel. Set in a future, post-apocalyptic dystopia reminiscent of the early Middle Ages, the book tells the story of a teenage girl named Kira.

In Kira’s ruthlessly physical society, the disabled, the critically injured, and the terminally ill are usually deemed “burdensome” and condemned to die of exposure. Men are the source of all leadership, all protection, all wealth.  Female literacy is a crime.

Kira, born with a withered leg, is the orphaned daughter of a widowed mother.  In her culture’s hierarchies-within-hierarchies, Kira ranks at the bottom every time.

But she’s determined to survive. She’s quick-witted, and she can be courageous and stubborn when the need arises.  And, it turns out, she has a gift that literally saves her life.

After Kira’s mother dies, the women of her village seek to have her sent to the Field of Leaving to die of exposure or predation.  The Council of Elders intervenes, however; having discovered that Kira is a gifted embroiderer, they assign her the monumental task of restoring and decorating the Singer’s Robe, one of the village’s most sacred artifacts.

This is where the inspiration comes, as Kira’s work teaches her more about herself–and her society–than she ever thought possible.

She has to pit her own courage, kindness, and inner peace against fears of the unfamiliar, ingrained patterns of submission, and the sheer fatigue of a grinding existence–not just her own, but others’ as well.

And, most importantly, she has to learn that the right choice is not always the easy one.  It’s a familiar theme in children’s literature, but Lowry executes it well.

Perhaps my favorite part of Kira’s story is its treatment of the concept of community.

In the society at large, chaos and anger are the rule. Alliances are temporary, formed primarily for violent purposes (hunting, seizing a neighbor’s property), and easily marred by greed and competition.  The Elders rely heavily on fear and ritual to hold the community together.

Even within families, verbal and physical abuse, loose bonds, and lack of concern for each other’s welfare are the norm.

Following in her mother’s footsteps, however, Kira turns her back on all this.  Instead, she seeks peace and connection, relationships where she can freely give (and receive) encouragement and love.

To that end, she builds a circle of friendship with a handful of other children, all of whom are very different from her but share her open heart.  Separately, they would probably disappear into the larger culture; together, they create an opportunity to change not only their own lives but the lives of everyone around them.

This is another old and familiar lesson, but one I’ve been struggling to learn in my own life: that independence has its good points, but there are times when, quite simply, we need help.  It’s a delicate balance, one I hope my daughter will learn as she grows.

With the help of books like Gathering Blue, maybe teaching her that lesson will be a little easier.

Further Reading

Gathering Blue is the second book in Lowry’s Giver trilogy, which begins with the Newbery-winning The Giver and ends with The Messenger.  The books are only loosely connected and can be read independently.  If you plan to read all three, however, I recommend reading them in sequence.

Readers who want to know more about Lowry may enjoy Looking Back, a memoir the author published in 1998.  Organized topically instead of chronologically, the book consists of short, candid essays accompanied by Lowry’s personal photos.  Ages 10 and up.

3 thoughts on “Finding Community in the Midst of Dystopia

  1. “The Giver” is my favorite of the three in this series. I read them in order by accident!

    And this sentence made my stomach lurch as I connected it to my own society: “The Elders rely heavily on fear and ritual to hold the community together.”

    How nice for fictional characters to discover hidden strengths and talents to better not only their own lives but the world around them. It serves as a bit of escapism for me, a person who seems to barely possess the strength to get by.

    1. I think the whole Giver trilogy has that theme: children discovering their own unexpected strengths and talents and realizing they can do much more than they expected to help their societies. It seems like escapism sometimes to me, too, but there are so many people in actual history who’ve done the same. I think that latent spark must be in everyone.

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