11 Things You May Not Know About The Giver

istock collage
istock collage

Lois Lowry’s 1993 young adult hit The Giver has a more complex history than you may have known.

1. A visit to Lowry’s father in a nursing home helped inspire the novel. 

In his later years, Lowry’s father lost much of his long-term memory, which got Lowry thinking about the power and importance of memories: Without them, there can be no pain. She began to imagine a society where the past was deliberately forgotten so that the members could live in “peaceful ignorance.” This version of reality may relieve the people of pain, but its fatal flaw is that it also takes away valuable connections to the past and the possibility of lasting human relationships. 

In a 1994 speech, Lowry touched on this visit and the questions it sparked: “We can forget pain, I think. And it is comfortable to do so. But I also wonder briefly: is it safe to do that, to forget?” 

2. The Giver on the cover was celebrated in his own right. 

In 1979, years before she wrote The Giver, Lowry was working as a journalist when she interviewed painter Carl Gustaf Nelson. The Swedish-born painter had lived in New York and taught painting in Boston before retiring to Maine’s Cranberry Island. Nelson’s art earned him spots in prestigious shows like the Whitney Biennial, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection contains two of his pieces. Lowry visited Nelson at his home off the coast of Maine, and while there she got the chance to photograph him. 

3. Nelson may also have inspired the Giver. 

In her 1994 Newbery Award acceptance speech, Lowry reminisced about meeting Nelson: “I spend a good deal of time with this man, and we talk a lot about color. It is clear to me that although I am a highly visual person—a person who sees and appreciates form and composition and color—this man’s capacity for seeing color goes far beyond mine … Now and then I wish, in a whimsical way, that he could have somehow magically given me the capacity to see the way he did.” 

4. Nelson had something in common with the Giver.

Nelson passed away in 1988, but his face stuck with Lowry. She loved the interesting picture of Nelson so much that she held on to it, and later turned it into cover art. The choice of Nelson as the cover model would turn out to have a deeper meaning for Lowry. The artist had spent the last few years of his life in blindness, which sparked a connection. As Lowry explained in a 2006 interview with Teachingbooks.net, “[His] life was filled with color … for him to lose color, as the Giver in the book begins to lose color, seemed such a wonderful analogy that I’ve always been glad his photograph is on the cover.” 

5. Some readers condemn the book as pro-euthanasia or pro-abortion. 

The book’s concept of “release,” depicted by a man killing a newborn baby with a lethal injection, has been cited as evidence that Lowry is promoting euthanasia, suicide, or possibly abortion, but she debunks these theories. She says that those sorts of accusations are often from people who haven’t read the book thoroughly, and therefore are missing her point altogether.

6. The book received some harsh reviews …

Like many successful YA novels, The Giver hasn’t been a critical darling. Author Debra Doyle complained, “Personal taste aside, The Giver fails the Plausibility Test for me. … Things are the way they are because The Author is Making a Point; things work out the way they do because The Author’s Point Requires It.” 

7. … But it won over other critics. 

On the other hand, The New York Times’ Karen Ray wrote that although there were “occasional logical lapses,” the book is still “sure to keep older children reading. And thinking.” Lowry also claimed the annual Newbery Award for “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children." 

More importantly, the novel reached its target audience. It resonated with young readers so well that it’s sold over 12 million copies. A 2003 review by Rome, Ga., seventh-grader Michael Butler leads off with a view that’s shared by many of his peers: “The Giver is one of the many great books in our society today.” 

8. Lowry got the news of her Newbery win in an odd place.

Lowry had already won the medal in 1990 for Number the Stars, but the committee had trouble locating her to share the good news about her second win in 1994. Eventually, the committee reached the author by radiogram, a necessary step since she was traveling in Antarctica. “I was feeling on top of the world, though, technically speaking, I was actually at the bottom,” she quips on her personal website. 

9. It took Jeff Bridges over 20 years to turn the book into a film. 

The actor became interested in adapting the novel for the screen in the early ‘90s but repeatedly got jammed up by studios and battles over ownership rights. The original plan was for Bridges to direct his father, Lloyd Bridges, in the title role, but this plan was canceled with the elder Bridges’ death in 1998. The film remained stuck in development hell for almost 15 years until Bridges was given the green light in 2012. The movie was released in 2014 starring Bridges (as the Giver), Meryl Streep, Brenton Thwaites, Odeya Rush, Cameron Monaghan, and featuring Katie Holmes, Alexander Skarsgård, and Taylor Swift.

10. Readers inundated Lowry with questions about the ending … 

Lowry loved the novel’s ambiguous ending, but it drove readers crazy. She even mentioned it in her Newbery speech: “Those of you who hoped that I would stand here tonight and reveal the ‘true’ ending, the ‘right’ interpretation of the ending, will be disappointed. There isn’t one. There’s a right one for each of us, and it depends on our own beliefs, our own hopes.” 

Lowry was so sold on the novel’s ambiguity that she even told interviewers that she would never write a sequel to clarify Jonas’s fate even as reader letters requesting closure flooded her mailbox. 

11. ... until she finally gave in. 

The passionate reader reaction made Lowry reconsider her anti-sequel stance. In a 2012 interview in Entertainment Weekly she explained, “I didn’t have any intention of writing a sequel. I liked the ambiguity of the ending. Over the years, though, it became clear that younger readers in particular did not.”  

Lowry set out to give the people what they wanted, a mission that yielded three more novels. Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son round out the “loose quartet” set in this universe, but Lowry did not intend to create a series. In an interview with The Wire in 2012, Lowry said, “I had not intended [Gathering Blue] as even related to The Giver, I was creating another interesting world, to me, where things were different, and as I went along I realized I could answer some questions … I put in, at the end of Gathering Blue, the reference to the boy Jonas. … Four years later I did the third book, and they were not sequels, really, they were set at a different place at more or less the same time.”

10 Amazing Facts About Harriet Beecher Stowe

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Over 41 issues, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom's Cabin was published as a serial in the abolitionist newspaper The National Era, the first installment on June 5, 1851. It was first followed by a only small group but its audience steadily grew as the story unfolded.

“Wherever I went among the friends of the Era, I found Uncle Tom’s Cabin a theme for admiring remark,” journalist and social critic Grace Greenwood wrote in a travelogue published in the Era. “[E]verywhere I went, I saw it read with pleasant smiles and irrepressible tears.’” The story was discussed in other abolitionist publications, such as Frederick Douglass’s Paper, and helped sell $2 annual subscriptions to the Era.

The popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin exploded once it was made available in a more accessible format. Some publishers claim the book edition is the second best-selling title of the 19th century, after the Bible.

1. Harriet Beecher Stowe's father and all seven of her brothers were ministers.

Harriet Elisabeth Beecher was born on June 14, 1811, in Litchfield, Connecticut. Her mother, Roxana Beecher, died five years later. Over the course of two marriages, her father, Calvinist preacher Lyman Beecher, fathered 13 children, 11 of whom survived into adulthood. He preached loudly against slavery. All seven of his sons followed him into the ministry. Henry Ward Beecher carried on his father’s abolitionist mission and according to legend sent rifles to anti-slavery settlers in Kansas and Nebraska in crates marked “Bibles.”

The women of the Beecher family were also encouraged to rise to positions of influence and rally against injustice. Eldest child Catharine Beecher co-founded the Hartford Female Seminary and Isabella Beecher Hooker was a prominent suffragist.

2. The Fugitive Slave Act—and a surprise $100 gift—inspired Uncle Tom's Cabin.

In 1832, Harriet Beecher moved to Cincinnati with her father, who assumed the presidency of Lane Theological Seminary. According to Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life by Joan D. Hedrick, the Ohio city introduced her to former slaves and African-American freemen and there she first practiced writing, in a literary group called the Semi-Colon Club.

She married Calvin Ellis Stowe, a professor at Lane, and eventually relocated to Brunswick, Maine, when he went to work at Bowdoin College. By then, Stowe had published two books, Primary Geography for Children and the short story collection New England Sketches. She was also a contributor to newspapers supporting temperance and abolitionism, writing “sketches,” brief descriptive stories meant to illustrate a political point.

Following a positive response to her The Freeman’s Dream: A Parable, Gamaliel Bailey, editor of the anti-slavery paper The National Era, sent her $100 to encourage her to continue supplying the paper with material. The 1850 passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, obligating authorities in free states to re-enslave refugees, took the slavery fight northward. It also encouraged Stowe to step up her game.

“I am at present occupied upon a story which will be a much longer one than any I have ever written,” Beecher Stowe wrote in a letter to Bailey, “embracing a series of sketches which give the lights and shadows of the ‘patriarchal institution’ [of slavery], written either from observation, incidents which have occurred in the sphere of my personal knowledge, or in the knowledge of my friends.” For material, she scoured the written accounts belayed by escaped slaves.

3. Uncle Tom's Cabin made her rich and famous.

According to Henry Louis Gate Jr.’s introduction to the annotated edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin, The National Era paid Stowe $300 for 43 chapters. Before the serial’s completion, Stowe signed a contract with John P. Jewett and Co. to publish a two-volume bound book edition, and that’s when it really took off. Released on March 20, 1852, the book sold 10,000 copies in the U.S. in its first week and 300,000 in the first year. In the U.K., 1.5 million copies flew off the shelves in the first year. Stowe was paid 10 cents for each one sold. According to a London Times article published six months after the book’s release, she had already amassed $10,000 in royalties. “We believe [that this is] the largest sum of money ever received by any author, either American or European, from the sales of a single work in so short a period of time,” the Times stated.

4. She went to court to stop an unauthorized translation of Uncle Tom's Cabin ... and lost.

Immediately after Uncle Tom’s Cabin became a literary sensation, a Philadelphia-based German-language paper, Die Freie Presse, began publishing an unauthorized translation. Stowe took the publisher, F.W. Thomas, to court. American copyright laws were notoriously weak at the time, irking British writers whose work was widely pirated. As someone who overnight became America’s favorite author, Stowe had much at stake testing them.

The case put her in the Philadelphia courtroom of Justice Robert Grier, a notorious enforcer of the Fugitive Slave Act. “By the publication of Mrs. Stowe's book, the creations of the genius and imagination of the author have become as much public property as those of Homer or Cervantes,” Grier ruled. The precedent set by Stowe vs. Thomas meant that authors had the right to prevent others from printing their exact words, but almost nothing else. “All her conceptions and inventions may be used and abused by imitators, play-rights and poet-asters,” ruled Grier.

5. Beecher Stowe visited Abraham Lincoln.

Though Stowe had criticized what she saw as his slowness in emancipation and willingness to seek compromise to prevent succession, Stowe visited President Abraham Lincoln at the White House in 1862, during the early days of the Civil War. Reportedly, Lincoln greeted her with, “So this is the little woman who brought on this big Civil War,” but scholars have dismissed the quote as Stowe family legend spread after her death.

Details of their conversation are limited to vague entries in their respective diaries. Lincoln may have bantered with her over his love of open fires (“I always had one to home,” he reportedly said), while Stowe got down to business and quizzed him: “Mr. Lincoln, I want to ask you about your views on emancipation.”

6. Beecher Stowe wrote a lot of things that weren't Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Stowe wrote more than 30 books, both fiction and nonfiction, plus essays, poems, articles, and hymns.

7. The Stowes wintered in the former slave state of Florida.

The influx of wealth from Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the end of the Civil War allowed the Stowes to purchase a winter home in Mandarin, Florida, in 1867. It may have seemed strange—and perilous—for a famous anti-slavery crusader to buy 30 acres in a former slave state so soon after the war, yet six years after the purchase, she wrote to a local newspaper, “In all this time I have not received even an incivility from any native Floridian.”

8. Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain were neighbors.

The Stowes’ primary residence, beginning in 1864, was a villa in the Nook Farm section of Hartford, Connecticut, a neighborhood populated by prominent citizens, including Mark Twain. The homes of Nook Farm had few fences, and doors stayed open in sunny weather, creating an air of gentility. That did not prevent Twain from writing a somewhat unflattering portrait of Stowe, as she gave way to what was probably Alzheimer’s disease, in his autobiography:

“Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe who was a near neighbor of ours in Hartford, with no fence between. In those days she made as much use of our grounds as of her own in pleasant weather. Her mind had decayed, and she was a pathetic figure. She wandered about all the day long in the care of a muscular Irishwoman, assigned to her as a guardian.”

9. Beecher Stowe outlived four of her seven children.

While continuing a lucrative and prolific writing career, Stowe birthed and cared for seven children. When she passed away in 85 in 1896, she had outlived four of them, as bad fortune seemed to follow their offspring.

Their third, Henry, drowned in a swimming accident in 1857. The fourth, Frederick, mysteriously disappeared en route to California in 1870. The fifth, Georgiana, died from septicemia, probably related to morphine in 1890. (She was an addict.) The sixth, Samuel, died from cholera in infancy in 1849. These losses informed several of Stowe’s works.

10. There are several Harriet Beecher Stowe houses you can visit.

The Harriet Beecher Stowe House of Cincinnati is where she lived after following her father to Lane. The Harriet Beecher Stowe House on the campus of Bowdoin in Brunswick, Maine, is where she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It became a restaurant from 1946 to 1998 and is now a faculty office building, but one room is open to the public and dedicated to Stowe. The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center preserves her home in Hartford. Her home in Florida is gone but is marked by a plaque.

Letters by Otto Frank, Anne Frank's Father, Are Being Digitized for the First Time

Spencer Platt, Getty Images
Spencer Platt, Getty Images

Decades after his family was ousted from their attic hiding space, Otto Frank began corresponding with a pen pal named Ryan Cooper. Throughout the 1970s, Frank and Cooper exchanged letters, with Frank offering perspectives on his time in seclusion and captivity during World War II. His daughter Anne’s famous diary was written while the family was hiding from German forces in Amsterdam.

Now, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is making those letters available digitally for the first time to commemorate what would have been Anne’s 90th birthday on June 12.

Cooper, an artist in California who was then in his 20s, struck up a pen pal relationship with Frank. In addition to garnering advice on a variety of topics, Cooper was able to learn more about the young woman whose Diary of Anne Frank went on to become one of the best-known chronicles of the war and who tragically died of typhus while being held in a concentration camp in 1945. The letters also reveal more about Otto Frank, who appeared determined to keep the memory of his daughter alive even as his own health began to deteriorate. Frank died in 1980 at the age of 91 as the family's only survivor of the war.

Cooper amassed more than 80 letters in total, including some from Miep Gies, who protected Anne’s writings until the war ended. The museum is expected to make all of it accessible online in the near future.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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