Friday, December 19, 2008

Messenger, by Lois Lowry: when bad books happen to good authors

Messenger. Lois Lowry (2004).
NY: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN: 0618404414

I can't believe a maven of children's literature is responsible for this book. Or, as I like to call it, this half-baked, over-aiming, under-performing, schizophrenic waste of a few good trees. In short, I less than enjoyed it. That's not to say the book doesn't have promise and is a stinker throughout; in fact, the first 7/8th's of the book are readable, developed, and pleasant enough. It's just that the ending of the story is so bad, so abrupt, so undercooked that it cheapens and pollutes the entire story. Sure, one can argue that Lowry does build the story towards the end; plot devices like Gifts (magical powers), the danger presented by Forest, and the Village-inspired love for others undeniably push Matty's self-sacrifice. But it is done in such an abrupt, disinterested way, barely dealt with after, leaving far, far to many questions left unanswered (The villagers recover from selling their souls, but do they learn their lesson? Do they feel remorse? Is Forest still dangerous? Are newcomers going to be allowed into Village?) and hardly acknowledging what a huge sacrifice this is. It almost seems like Lowry ran out of paper and had to rush to wrap everything up and squeeze it into the allotted space. I half expected Matty to recover, until the one line about keening, which we know from the beginning of the book is how the villagers mourn a death.

This waste of paper is allegedly the sequel to Gathering Blue and the Giver, two of Lowry's award winning books. Because of this, I'm going to go out on a limb, giving her the benefit of the doubt, and assume that a publisher demanded this. Matty, whom I presume makes an appearance in the other books (I haven't read Gathering Blue), has been living in Village with Seer, a blind man, since first taking refuge here as a young boy. Village is a special place deep in Forrest. While most of the towns surrounding Village are hard knock kind of places, Village is peaceful and utopian, populated by other refugees like Matty who have escaped hardships in the surrounding towns. Matty is a messenger, meaning he delivers messages in the village and often travels through Forest (and that's another thing, why can't Lowry call it THE village, or THE forest? WHY?) to deliver messages from the Villagers to family and friends outside Forest's boundaries. Matty, whose chief desire is to be given Messenger as his true name, is lucky, since Forrest seems to have an evil mind of its own. Sure, it'll let you creep through seeking sanctuary in Village, but forget going back; Forest tends to kill those who try to travel back or through it after having been through once, but is kind enough to give you a warning "tread my paths and I'll squish you with my vines" gouge to let you know though! However, things are going a bit wonky in Village; people seem to be changing, becoming cynical and meaner. They even want to shut Villages' boundaries and stop welcoming newcomers, and it may have something to do with Trademart, when the Villagers trade (their souls) for things they want. Way to be blatant, Lowry.

What's worse is that Forest seems to be getting meaner too, thickening and getting more dangerous. Meanwhile, Matty has discovered he has magical healing powers, and is promptly sent on a mission to post closing notices on all the paths and bring back Seer's daughter Kira before the bad Villagers finish constructing their Berlin Wall. However, Leader, Villages leader (go figure), cautions Matty not to use his magical powers too soon. But Forest is a nasty piece of work, and Matty and Kira find themselves subject to it's maniacal vices as they struggle to get back to Village before it is too late or they die. Since I already kind of spilled the beans above, and you obviously aren't going to read this stinker now (right?), I don't feel too bad about spoiling the ending. Matty dies, using up all his healing power to heal all of Forrest, Village, and the villagers, a cheap and easy out I wouldn't predict Lowry would go for. The end. Seriously, that's pretty much how it goes in the book too. Oh right, Leader posthumously gives Matty his true name: Healer. Can't a dead boy catch a break?

Best for: Grades 4-7, reading level wise.

Book talk hook: Yeah. RIGHT. I think I hated all over this book above sufficiently enough to not explain myself here. I also recommend it to no one, regardless of the easier reading level.

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