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Meet Jonas, an eleven-year-old boy who lives in a rigidly controlled society some time in the future. Jonas’s community is based on a social system called the Sameness, in which there is no suffering, hunger, war, and, as you will soon see, no color, sex, music, or love. Everything is controlled by "the Committee of Elders," right down to who you will marry, who you receive as children, and what you will be "assigned" as a job.
Individual identity has gone the way of cassette tapes, and everyone is essentially just like everyone else. It seems that community members never really leave the area, except to visit other neighboring communities. To get "released" is a big deal. It only happens to sick infants or really old people, or to people who break the rules laid out by the community’s Department of Justice.
In short… this world is a terrible place to hang out. But Jonas doesn’t know that—yet. He thinks he’s got a pretty good life with his assigned family unit, which includes Jonas’s father, mother and younger sister Lily. Jonas and his friends Asher and Fiona volunteer together at the House of the Old, ride their bikes, and generally live somewhat like normal kids.
Because Jonas is almost twelve, it's almost time for him to get assigned a profession. There's a big ceremony, called the Ceremony of Twelve, at which the decisions are announced. Jonas watches all his friends get their jobs (Recreation Director, Caretaker for the Old), but then he's skipped over. The Chief Elder finishes the ceremony and explains that Jonas has been "selected" to be The Receiver of Memory, which is a big deal. Jonas looks over at the current Receiver, an old man who, like Jonas, has light eyes. This is also a big deal. Jonas is one of very few people in the community with light eyes.
Speaking of pale eyes, Jonas's family unit has been taking care of a sick baby named Gabriel with this same unusual characteristic. If the baby doesn't get better within a year or two, he's going to be released from the community.
Okay, so now that Jonas has been selected to be the new Receiver of Memory, he gets a list of rules. They tell him that he isn't allowed to discuss his Receiver "training" with anyone, that he's allowed to lie (!), and that he can ask anyone any questions he wants, even if it's rude. Nice.
And then Jonas starts his training, which consists of receiving a series of memories from the current Receiver, who is now referred to as The Giver. These aren't just any old personal memories—rather, the old man is passing on to Jonas all the collective memories of humanity, going way back. The memories are from before the Sameness was established, back when there was color and sex and love and music and emotions and hills and snow and sunshine, all of which are notably absent from Jonas's world. The very first memory he receives is that of sledding down a hill in the snow. While Jonas gets to experience lots of fun things like Christmas and birthday parties, he also has to deal with the bad memories, like sunburn, loss, death, and warfare.
Needless to say, this completely changes the way Jonas looks at his world. He realizes that no one around him has ever felt any real emotions at all, and he’s haunted by stories of the previous Receiver of Memory, a girl named Rosemary who applied for her own release because she couldn’t bear the painful memories. A year into his training, Jonas discovers that the process of "release," which is performed on people who break the rules, babies who are sick, and folks who are very old, is really nothing more than a lethal injection. Worse yet, it’s Jonas’s father, in his ironically titled job of “nurturer,” who gives the fatal jab to babies like Gabriel.
This doesn't go over too well. Jonas and The Giver devise a plan: Jonas will fake his own death and run away to Elsewhere, a.k.a. the land outside the communities, which is, for all intents and purposes, very similar to our world (in other words, it has music and color and joy, but also violence and poverty). Once Jonas leaves, the memories which The Giver has passed to him will be released to the general community, at which point they'll all just have to deal with the pain. Oh, and also they'll be free because they'll understand what it means to have choices.
Great. Sounds like a plan. Except it doesn't work. While he's getting ready for the big escape night, Jonas finds out that the little baby with pale eyes, Gabriel, is going to be "released" the next morning. He has to make an improvised, fast-paced, and thrilling bicycle escape, taking the baby with him.
Weeks later, Jonas is still biking away from the community with Gabriel. They're basically starving to death. Jonas keeps trying to transmit memories of the past to the little tyke, memories of sunshine and, you know, not starvation, in order to keep them going. Finally, it starts snowing and Jonas gets to the base of a familiar-looking hill. He ditches the bike and walks up with Gabriel, still trying to cling on to pleasant memories.
When he gets to the top, the sled (from the first memory he received from The Giver) is waiting for him. He climbs into it and pushes off down the hill, fully convinced that at the bottom is Elsewhere, and a whole group of people waiting to greet them.