People with disabilities aren’t usually allowed to remain alive in the society of Lois Lowry’s Gathering Blue (loosely a companion novel to The Giver). But Kira, the protagonist, has managed to make it to young adulthood with a “twisted leg,” thanks to a mother who fought for her and a grandfather who was powerful in the community. When her mother dies, though, Kira’s protection disappears. And society is ready to cast Kira out: the neighbor women decide they would rather have Kira’s land to build a pen for their children. They go before the community’s leaders, the Council of Guardians, to argue that Kira “has not contributed,” and so doesn’t deserve to keep her land. She is a burden because “she cannot dig or plant or weed…She is slow, and she eats a lot.”
The Council grants the neighbors’ request for the land, partly because it has other plans for Kira. She is a talented threader, so she is given a room in the Council’s building and a task — work she can do, unlike the physical labor she has been unable to participate in her entire life. She is to repair the Singer’s robe, worn at an annual ceremony. And in the Council Edifice she encounters other artists, also made to live apart from the community (though these artists, as far as the story indicates, are able-bodied), with specific tasks to complete. Kira ends up becoming friends with the other residents, a carver and a singer — but she is also doubly isolated by her disability and her artistic ability.
The story suggests that Kira’s talents as a threader make up for her disability, justifying her continued survival and the Council’s support of her. Since her birth, Kira’s mother has told her that, for example, “one bent leg is of no importance when measured against your cleverness. The stories you tell to the tykes, the pictures you create with words — and with thread! The threading you do! It is unlike any threading the people have ever seen!” It is because of this skill that the Council takes the unusual step of granting Kira a new role, with the disturbing implication that without it, she would be worthless.
Kira’s disability is never far from the story. She can’t rebuild her cott — the small house she shared with her mother — because she cannot climb. She can’t expect to marry because “no one would desire Kira.” Even once Kira has found her own meaningful work, a fit for her particular talents, the physical effort involved in some of that work, like walking to the hut of an old woman from whom Kira is learning to dye thread, still poses problems. This felt, to me, realistic — chronic pain remains a constant, even when one is engaged in consuming, enjoyable work. Given how much Kira’s disability affects her standing in the community, it made sense that it dominated so much of the narrative.
What I found frustrating, though, is that Kira doesn’t question the assumptions about disability that are built into her world and into the story. It’s true that Kira will never be able to perform some of the physical tasks expected of members of her community. It’s not necessarily true, though, that these limitations must make Kira a burden; that the physical labor she is able to do, picking up scraps for the weavers, is not meaningful or necessary; that she can’t expect to be able to marry because of what another character describes as her “horrid gimp”; or even that she must have other talents to give her worth. None of these assumptions are inevitable consequences of Kira’s disability — they are social attitudes. They are beliefs that can be changed.
It’s only at the end of the book, when Kira learns of another society with different ideas, where people with disabilities are welcome to live in the community and accommodate everyone by working together, that she senses there might be another way to look at things. Even then, her thoughts are more about her art than about her disability. She wants to free herself to use her talents for her own ends, rather than the Council’s, and thus help her community imagine a different way of life. There’s little indication, though, that a radically different approach to disability is part of Kira’s vision. And if dystopian stories reflect our world back to us at extremes, letting us see its most problematic attitudes and allowing us, perhaps, to imagine solutions, that seems a missed opportunity.