Gathering Blue, by Lois Lowry, 224 pp, RL 4
While The Giver, Gathering Blue and The Messenger are considered a trilogy, all three can be read as stand-alone titles. The Giver and Gathering Blue are linked more by Lois Lowry's thematic explorations of the idea of the individual and the community than they are by characters. In fact, there is only one fleeting reference to Jonas near the end of this book as the boy with eyes that are an "amazing blue." The Messenger is the book that unites The Giver and Gathering Blue and makes their connections meaningful and obvious. And, while all three communities are radically different, they still give the reader something to think about long after the book is over.
Gathering Blue begins with Kira sitting watch over her mother in the Field of Leaving. When her spirit has finally left her body after four days Kira returns to her cott (a word Lowry uses to mean home or cottage) to find it burned to the ground, the women of the village already trying to claim the land it was on for their own. While this situation itself is threatening, it is even more dangerous for Kira who has lost her last protector. Kira, who's leg was crippled from birth, should have been left in the Field of Leaving when she was born according to the ways of the village. But, Kira's grandfather was a member of the Council of Guardians and her father, who died before she was born, would have also joined the Council had he lived. This his allowed her mother to fight to keep her alive, to have an exception made for her. Conscious of this, Kira works to contribute her fair share. Despite her disability she finds work in the weaving rooms and also learns her mother's craft of threading (embroidery.) This skill proves to be her life saver when she is taken before the Council of Guardians by another villager who believes she should be banished from the village.
The village that Lowry creates for Gathering Blue is downright medieval when compared to the Community of The Giver. Life is brutal and difficult and the villagers are constantly bickering with each other or worse. Despite this almost animal existence, the village does have tradition, ceremony and even reverence for their past. While descriptions of village living conditions are extremely rustic, The Council Edifice where the Council of Guardians live and conduct business is clearly some sort of multi-floor building that was left standing after the ruin. When her skill as a threader saves Kira's life she is given a home in the Council Edifice where she experiences the luxuries of hot and running water for the first time. Once there, she is expected to repair and eventually add to the embroidered designs on the Singer's robe that tell the story of this post-ruin world in which only men, and few at that, are allowed to read. Like the annual Ceremony in The Giver, Kira's village also has an annual Gathering. Much like the Receiver in The Giver, The Singer of Gathering Blue lives apart from the rest of the villagers. All year, he practices his craft and repeats the verses of the hours long Ruin Song, making sure he has memorized them properly. After the Singer, the Carver and the Threader are revered, but sequestered, figures in the village. The Threader, for maintaining the robe and the Carver for maintaining and adding to the staff that the Singer holds as he sings. The staff, carved with the same story that is on the robe, allows the Singer to mark his place in the Ruin Song and reminds him of the verses.
What Kira discovers about the life she has been given by the Council of Guardians and the future that awaits her, as well as Thomas, the Carver, who is roughly her age, and Jo, the young girl who has been selected to be the next Singer, startles her- once she pieces it all together. It seems that the Council of Guardians are as manipulative and disregarding of human life as the Committee of Elders in The Giver. Again, a character who thinks she has many choices in life is confronted with the possibility that she may have unknowingly given her freedom away - if it ever existed at all. The parallels between The Giver and Gathering Blue are not obvious upon first reading, which makes it great for a "read and discuss" book for parents and kids. In addition to thought provoking themes, Lowry instills the plot with inventive and fascinating details. In Kira's village, dyes for the yarns she threads with are made from plant life. Her mother was a skilled gardener and was about to teach her to be one as well before she died. Kira is apprenticed to Annabella, an elderly woman who lives on the edge of the dangerous woods and provides this service for the village as well. Annabella teaches Kira her craft and also opens he eyes to the ways of the Council of Guardians before her untimely death. In the history of the village, the plant that yields a blue dye has never been found, although Annabella knows its name and appearance. When Kira's young friend Matt, a sometimes trouble-maker who saved the life of an injured dog - an uncommon act in a village that has little regard for the life of any creature less than whole, makes a dangerous journey to find the woad plant that will allow her to thread blue, he also makes a startling discovery that affects Kira and finally links Gathering Blue and The Giver more than just thematically.
One final interesting detail that Lowry hinted at in The Giver and gives a bit more shape to in Gathering Blue is the idea of having a "special gift." Jonas' burgeoning ability to see color, as well as The Giver's ability to hear music seemed like genetic mutations in the context of the plot of The Giver. In Gathering Blue, Kira has a "special gift" when threading that enables her hands to work almost of their own volition, as happened with a scrap of magnificent threading she completed one night as she sat by her mother's sick bed. This scrap brings her comfort and, at times, seems to give her direction when she is confused and unsure. She discovers that Thomas the Carver has a piece of wood that he carved that has similar traits. Within the context of Gathering Blue, this detail can possibly be read as an artistic gift, sort of like a sixth sense. After all, artists do see the world in a different way and that is what makes them artists. However, with The Messenger the "special gift" is revealed to be something else entirely. Gathering Blue is sort of a break after the intensity of The Giver and its Community that is similar to how most of us live today in many ways. The brutality and poverty of the village that Kira lives in is troubling, but, perhaps because it seems so medieval and distant (even though the story takes place in the future) it is not quite as affecting as the social construct of The Giver. As a character, Kira seems stronger and her survival more assured than that of Jonas, who's transition from an oblivious, pampered life to a violent, painful existence was more abrupt and shocking. Also, the fact that Kira is a female character with a a valuable creative talent makes her more relatable and likable. While I will always value and revere The Giver for the provocative ideas and questions that it embodies, Gathering Blue, with the strong characters of Kira and Matt and the supportive, friendly characters of Thomas and Annabella, is my favorite of the three.