Lois Lowry Shares Her Story with Clarksdale

Community Book Talks Lecture Series ends 2014 with outstanding speaker

Author of The Giver Lois Lowry addresses crowd in Clarksdale at Carnegie Public Library

Author of The Giver Lois Lowry addresses crowd in Clarksdale at Carnegie Public Library


Clarksdale, Mississippi

Library full, mostly women—young to old—kids on iPhones, growing up fast, three young ladies in white headdresses, teachers with list for extra credit, several young Mennonite girls, faces flush with innocence and beauty, wearing printed dresses, small groups of rovers patrolling looking for friends, all well behaved, light chatter a pleasant white noise, would that schoolrooms always be so quiet and well maintained, all here to receive from The Giver, Lois Lowry.

Riddled with attention-deficit disorder, I can rarely sit still for long, mind wandering to and fro seeking balance and focus, but tonight, a 77-year-old writer and guest at the Clark House Residential Inn, where I serve as innkeeper, held my attention rapt for almost two hours as she braided strands of her life, her work and known and unknown American history into a personal narrative, providing insight to those familiar with her work and those soon to be acquainted. I have since read The Giver, her best-known book among the 45 or so she has written.

This was the year’s final event for the Community Book Talks Lecture Series presented by the Carnegie Public Library in partnership with the Coahoma County Higher Education Center. Every speaker has been renowned, gifted, unique and well received; Lois Lowry was no exception.

The main room in the library was packed, silent and dark. I wish that I had recorded her talk for posterity sake and to have as a reference as I write this brief reader/response. I took indecipherable notes, unable to see the pages, hoping my poor memory might recall the poignancy her recollections bore on my own memories of youth, solitude and the never-ending dance of the good, the bad, the ugly and the redeemable.

Lowry titled her PowerPoint “Dreams, Gifts & Memories!” Why dreams? She likes dreams. She told a story of her mother recounting later in life her friend Dorothy’s three-day-old child, who died long ago. When asked if it was a memory or if she really thought it was happening in the present, her mother responded, “In the dream world that doesn’t matter!”

Lowry’s father was a military dentist, stationed during World War II in the Pacific Rim. He set up dental clinics in Japan after the war and served as General MacArthur’s dentist, later serving the Nixon family during his presidency. Lowry moved often and described herself as being a solitary child, a prolific reader from her earliest days.

She described the first time she remembered being drawn deeply into a narrative. She was eight-years old, already determined to become a writer, when her mother began reading The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

The hardscrabble, alienated lives portrayed in the novel profoundly affected her. Being familiar, even as an 8-year-old child, with more traditional children’s literature like Little Women and The Secret Garden, she identified with Jody, the young, lonely, skinny protagonist. Lowry had already been reading herself for several years prior to her mother reading The Yearling aloud. She first remembers seeing her mother cry when she read the following: “He was torn with hate for all death, and pity for all aloneness.”

Lowry addressed her use of unhappiness, suffering, disappointment and loss of innocence threaded throughout her books, written primarily for children. “Life is made up of good things and bad things intertwined.”

She recounted living in a cookie-cutter military compound in post-WWII Japan. Though a shy child, she would sneak out of the compound, often, riding a green bike into contiguous Japanese neighborhoods.

She knew little Japanese and the locals she would pass by knew little English. They would just stare at one another, stymied by “sameness,” a concept at the heart of The Giver. She remembered seeing one particular boy, staring at her, either afraid or unwilling to speak. 57 years later, they meet.

In 1994, The Giver was awarded the Newbery Medal, given yearly to the most distinguished author for his or her contribution to American literature for children. That same year a picture book called Grandfather’s Journey was awarded the Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished American picture book. Its author/illustrator was Allen Say.

Allen is Japanese but has lived in the USA since he was a young man. Both Say and Lowry began talking and soon discovered that he was the Japanese boy she had been staring at and she was the girl on the green bike.

Now close friends, Lowry laments the years of lost friendship because both of them had not done the hard thing: connected. She encourages us to not avoid the difficult, painful things, and not to fear things we do not understand. She has caused me, a fledgling writer, to be bold, to be present, and to write about life as it is: good, bad, ugly and redeemable! Thank you Lois Lowry! What a gift!

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