The Giver Historical and Social Context
by Lois Lowry

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Context

(Novels for Students)

Bosnia

Lowry's novel was written against the backdrop of events in Bosnia, and in particular the ugly results of "ethnic cleansing." During the early 1990s, Serbian forces in Bosnia opened concentration camps and attempted to rid the country of Muslims. Muslim women were raped and Muslim men incarcerated and starved, all as a matter of social and political policy. These practices were made known to the world by investigative journalism. The community in Lowry's novel is similarly concerned to keep outsiders at bay. There is only a way out of the community, no way in.

Euthanasia

While writing her novel, Lowry will have been aware of a celebrated euthanasia case in 1990, involving Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Kevorkian had once proposed rendering death row prison inmates unconscious so that their living bodies could be used as the subjects of medical experiments. The suggestion had led to his dismissal, but he continued his preoccupation with euthanasia by writing on the subject for European medical journals. In an issue of Medicine and Law, he suggested setting up suicide clinics, arguing that the acceptance of planned death required the establishment of well-staffed and well-organized medical clinics where terminally ill patients can opt for death under controlled circumstances of compassion and decorum. In the late 1980s, he developed a suicide device that was basically a method of administering a lethal injection. In the novel, the Releasing Room, and the crude means of administering Release, bear all the hallmarks of Kevorkian's suicide device.

Kevorkian appeared on the Donahue talk show in April 1990. A woman who had been diagnosed as suffering from Alzheimer's disease saw the show and got into contact with him. An English professor, she found the prospect of deteriorating mental faculties impossible to bear. Both she and her husband had been long-standing members of the Hemlock Society, which supports doctor-assisted suicide. On June 4, 1990, using Kevorkian's suicide machine, she terminated her own life.

Although attempts to punish Kevorkian with the law on this and subsequent occasions failed, the moral outcry was vociferous. Condoning suicide paves the way for society to abdicate its responsibility for improving conditions for the elderly and chronically ill, many argued. However, the woman's family and friends insisted that she was competent to make her decision and had every right to do so. They defended the doctor's part in her death. This particular case, and others Kevorkian has been associated with since then, have dramatized the issue of the right to die in a way that has demanded full media attention. Lowry's children's novel might well be advocated reading for any adult anxious to consider the full implications of doctor-assisted suicide.

Branch Davidian Raid

Early in 1993 the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, was raided by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), after neighbors of the religious group complained of hearing machine-gun fire and a United Parcel Service employee reported delivering two cases of hand grenades and black gunpowder. The Branch Davidians were an offshoot of the Davidian Seventh-Day Adventists, a splinter group of the Seventh-Day Adventists.

David Koresh had joined the group in 1984 and immediately began a campaign to gain control. Under Koresh, the religious sect became a full-fledged cult. He incorporated a strict regime for the group, but excluded himself from his own discipline. After the first abortive raid by the ATF, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) swarmed the compound, hoping that cult members would surrender themselves voluntarily. Weeks of negotiations followed before the FBI asked Attorney General Janet Reno to authorize another raid on the compound.

The raid commenced at 12:05 p.m. Smoke was seen coming from the compound. Fire trucks were called, but they did not arrive for thirty minutes. By that time, most of the building had already collapsed. Eighty-six people...

(The entire section is 999 words.)