Monday, August 8, 2016

Book Review: Gathering Blue

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Gathering Blue


Author: Lois Lowry

Author's web page:

Date: 2000

Publisher: Random House / Laurel Leaf

Publisher’s web site:

ISBN: 0-440-22949-9

Length: 215 pages

Quote: “They’re only tykes. There are too many of them anyway.”

I don’t get it, with this novel. It was published at the same time the Left Behind: The Kids series was being published. Like Left Behind, like The Hunger Games, like Oryx and Crake or The Handmaid’s Tale or Brave New World or 1984 or This Perfect Day, it’s a story set in a hypothetical future world that is much more unpleasant than the world we know.

Dystopias, or partial dystopias like the world The Dragon Riders of Pern are protecting and improving, are a classic literary form in which writers describe what’s wrong with the world they know by describing how it could become worse and/or be made better. The Handmaid’s Tale shows us what a “paperless” world would quickly become; The Hunger Games shows us to what some people believe current taste in reality TV is leading, and so on.

Gathering Blue doesn’t really enlighten us at all. It’s not set in the past history of our world or identified with some fictional world different from ours, so maybe it’s meant to be a possible future for our world, but we’re not told what’s brought humans to this low point or how they can crawl up out of it.

It’s a nasty world. It’s a world that summarizes its history as Ruin and Rebuilding. That’s the shape of speculative fictions like Pern, where a human population too small to have really formed separate nations are still recovering from the Ruin of having immigrated to a different planet, and are in a process of Rebuilding in which someone takes a measurable step in every novel or short story. It’s not the shape of Gathering Blue, where the basic problem with the society seems to be that the people are repulsive, and nothing seems likely to improve them.

In this world people use only one name, which is officially changed at each of life’s passages, lengthening with age. We know that someone called Kit is a child, someone called Kira is a teenager, someone called Katrina is an adult, and someone called Annabella is old, by the number of syllables in their names. Has any human society ever been able to enforce such a simple, arbitrary rule?

Anyway: Kira, originally Kit, was born with a twisted leg. There are plenty of things she can do but, according to the rules of her society, she’s supposed to be destroyed. Her mother has hidden and protected her throughout her own short life. Then Kira’s mother dies and Kira has to convince the village council that she can work and should be allowed to live. She is allowed to live, within narrow and arbitrary restrictions. She’s never been taught to read, and isn’t intelligent enough to teach herself. Her society has lost a lot of useful information, including the formula for making blue dye. Kira’s big achievement is making a blue dye. All it gets her is the satisfaction of having figured out something that humans living under primitive conditions, in the real world, have always figured out rather quickly.

There seem to be a lot of secrets in Kira’s world, although it’s hard to rule out the explanation that these things are “secrets” to Kira because her real problem is not leg damage but brain damage. Basically anything that this story might have to teach us seems to be a secret. Kira’s world is not crowded. People don’t have a fresh memory of a catastrophe caused or aggravated by crowded conditions in the past. What’s happened to the normal human instinct to protect children? Big secret. I find myself suspecting that “Publisher wanted a dystopian story; writer refused to think through what the dystopian story ought to say to people” is the secret.

I find myself not liking Gathering Blue—because it’s by Lois Lowry. This writer can do so much better than this. Lowry has written many novels for children and teenagers, some sad (Number the Stars is about the Nazi invasion of Denmark), more funny. The ones that really made her reputation began with Anastasia Krupnik, a series of funny stories about a profoundly nice family of intelligent people with well developed senses of humor. There may be writers, the kind who self-publish everything they’ve written, who write whole novels about worlds where one of our basic animal instincts has disappeared with no explanation, because they don’t know any better. Lowry does. From the creator of Myron, Katherine, Anastasia, and Sam Krupnik readers have a right to expect characters who are not only like humans, but like the sort of humans it’s fun to know.

Instead of which we get this world of dreariness. And critics, some of the same critics who dismissed Left Behind as unreadably bad, claimed that Gathering Blue was good. “A fully realized world full of drama, suspense, and even humor. Readers won’t forget these memorable characters or their…inhospitable world,” raves someone quoted on the inside front cover of my copy. I find the drama all right, with the child having to campaign for its right to survive, but no suspense and not a single chortle. I read Gathering Blue a few years ago and, when I reopened it to review it, I had indeed forgotten its characters. Their world seems, physically, as delightful as ours is; the characters are the ones who are irretrievably inhospitable, and most of them are also boring.

I get that what these critics couldn’t stand about Left Behind was the overt Christianity, with the perfunctory bow to Jewish readers and no recognition of any other kind; and, although that was its great selling point, Left Behind was certainly written hastily with plenty of flaws.

I don’t get that they found anything of great value in Gathering Blue, which could be described as a realistic speculation about a world from which all traces of Christianity had been eradicated, just like Left Behind, only the loss of Christian virtue is never explicitly mentioned. I suspect that these critics just wanted to praise a dystopian novel by a writer who’s not “branded” with any religious tradition. Gathering Blue qualified, and so it was hailed as if it were as good as Oryx and Crake, only short and sex-free enough to be recommended to middle school readers.

It’s not all that bad, actually, once you get over the disappointment. Lowry does better with funny, realistic stories (the Krupniks, the Tates, the stand-alone novels) than with sad, realistic stories. With speculative fiction I honestly think she’s over her head. As a story about a teenager coping with a disability while pursuing a goal, Gathering Blue is…well, it’s not Beverly Butler’s Light a Single Candle or Helen Keller’s Story of My Life, by a long stretch. But it’ll do to pass the time on a long train ride.

I'd actually rather sell you copies of Rabble Starkey or Taking Care of Terrific than the Giver Quartet, online, but I can get gently used copies of any of Lowry's older books, and all of them qualify as Fair Trade Books. As regular readers know: send $5 per book + $5 per package to either address at the very bottom of the screen, and we'll send $1 per book to Lowry (or any other living writer) or the charity of her choice.