I can’t remember which book I read first, Lois Lowry’s “The Giver” or Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” It was only a couple of years ago, but what I do remember is feeling hopeless.

If that was how those books made me feel, why read more? Admittedly, I can be a little dense and it would take several more brushes with dystopian literature before I’d grasp the meaning of such a category.

There was the buzz over “The Hunger Games” trilogy by Suzanne Collins. With the first movie set for release in 2012, I read all three before. Then there was Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” series.

Fortunately my mom, aunts and cousins formed a book club before I could read Roth, thus steering me away from such bummer reads. That, and the ridiculously addictive “50 Shades” was released that same year.

But eventually I found myself back in the future, watching the big screen version of Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” and reading Edan Lepucki’s “California” this summer.

As mentioned, I can be a little simple and while I’d heard the word “dystopian” thrown about, it didn’t dawn on me that this was the category of literature I’d been consuming until this summer when muscling through Lepucki’s debut tome about life after the collapse of the U.S. government.

My husband asked me what it meant, dystopian literature. I said, “Think the opposite of ‘utopia.’”

I’m not sure what came first, my current episode of depression or reading this depressing genre, but they certainly haven’t helped one another.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when a close friend recently asked me to stop reading dystopian literature, “at least for the rest of the year.”

She should’ve included movies in that plea as my daughter and I saw “The Giver” over the weekend.

I’ve heard some fans of the book argue the movie did not follow the story as much as they’d hoped. Myself, I didn’t like the movie (or the book) because it’s so dang depressing!

My critics would argue all these books and movies end on hope-full notes, that the characters realize the err in such a life and seek change for the better. I, however, get snagged on the society those characters are pushing against—how did it get that way?!

With “The Giver,” life has been sterilized against all emotion, all choice in exchange for an easily controlled, peaceful society. Daily medication is administered to everyone in an effort to keep the senses dulled and the mind clouded.

But when the lead character, Jonas, nears graduation, he begins to glimpse moments of color. At graduation, when teens are assigned their careers, Jonas learns he’s going to be trained as a “Receiver” and in meeting with the “Giver” (played by Jeff Bridges) Jonas starts to question everything.

As memories of the human race are transmitted from the Giver to the Receiver, Jonas begins to understand society has been robbed of all the freedoms that make us human—freedom to feel, freedom to see, freedom to sense.

The book version ends with Lowry leaving the reader to decide what happens to Jonas. The movie chooses a more definitive, happier ending. Both endings left me sad.

How does a society implode in such a way that results in having all choice removed?!

I’d like to imagine we’re far from such a dystopia, but we’re not. Look at the state of our nation.

Our government doesn’t work. Our nation remains hung up on skin color and gender. Our Supreme Court ruled money talks. Our middle class is dying from stagnant wages, rising costs and an unfair tax code. Our manufacturing was exported. Our jobs were out-sourced. And the only people benefitting from America’s current way of life is our elite class, the 1 percenters.

To me, it feels as if our country is barreling towards an abyss from which we’ll never recover, so thick is the hatred and greed.

But then came Ken Burns. This amazing film maker has released yet another series, the seven-day “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” on public television, which concludes tonight.

I find hope in Burns refusing to let history be forgotten, in his innate ability to show people the similarities between their then and our now.

With “The Roosevelts,” Burns is able to show how important it is for government to intercede when the “ruling class” refuses.

From this early 20th century era, our country saw positive change come to the working poor with improvements made in wages, working conditions and hours. Women gained the right to vote. Monopolies and trusts were destroyed.

What happened? Several decades of “can-do” Americanism, though some will try to argue this impetus.

I take heart in knowing others have been watching “The Roosevelts” and will acknowledge its parallels to today’s weakened America. My hope is still others will begin to recognize the lies some media are selling them, will grasp the necessity for helping the less fortunate, will see that 99 percent of us are held hostage by the ruling class.

My main hope, however, is that people will open their eyes and ears and hearts to understand that the society in which we live is broken. But, most importantly, that we can do better and thus avoid a dystopian reality.


Originally published 20 September 2014 in The Observer.

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