There were five of them, the Dunbar boys. Their mother had died, their father had left, and they communicated their anguish and fierce love through their fists. Matthew, the oldest, tells the story of how he taped up Clay’s feet so that he could run punishing, barefoot races where Rory cursed at him and tackled him on the track. Meanwhile, Henry piled up gambling wins, and Tommy, the youngest, added one pet after another to his menagerie. They couldn’t seem to finish high school, but they could all play the piano. Their mother had seen to that. She had also soaked them in the words of Homer, just as her father had read the Iliad and the Odyssey to her before he planned her flight from the Nazis of Europe to her new home in Australia.
In his first novel in over a dozen years, Markus Zusak courses through the generations of one family, weaving a web of strings that all find their end in Clay, the sensitive, quiet Dunbar brother, the one who loves his parents’ stories and treasures them up in his heart. Clay, who brutally abuses his body when he runs, fights, and works. His brothers say that he is “in training,” but to what purpose? His brothers don’t even know how much he loves Carey, the new girl who is an apprentice jockey at the downtrodden racetrack near their house, or how he meets her every Saturday night in the middle of a field, chastely exchanging hearts and dreams.
This is a thoroughly male story, and even the wonderful female characters are seen through the eyes of the men, who are honorable, angry, heartbroken, loving, and tough. As Matthew’s account moves backward and forward in time, certain motifs run throughout the book: Homer and racehorses, music and Michelangelo, painting and clothes pegs. The animals all have Greek names, beginning with Hector the cat and ending with the inimitable mule, Achilles. The Monopoly games are epic. Male habits that confound women are brilliantly portrayed, such as talking to one another side by side while looking away into the distance or punching a brother instead of saying, “I’m sorry” or “I love you.” As a matter of fact, the unapologetic level of testosterone is startlingly outside of today’s gender-fluid YA literary norms. Furthermore, this novel deals with far more mature themes than are usually found in teen books, such as terminal illness, marriage, divorce, guilt, and life-changing regret. Death is almost as much a character in this novel as it was in The Book Thief.
I first met Markus Zusak at the ALA convention in Washington, D.C., in 2007, when The Book Thief won a Printz Honor medal. That was a banner year for the Printz reception. The winner was Gene Luen Yang, the first author to win a Printz for a graphic novel, and the honor recipients were Zusak, John Green, Sonya Hartnett, and M.T. Anderson. At that time, the Printz Committee had all of the authors give speeches, so we were agog. Even before that evening, however, the Mock Printz Club from our library— almost all teenage girls— met Markus in the lunchroom, and since all of the seats were taken, he asked whether he could eat lunch with us on the floor in the stairwell. Um, yes! You have never seen such a group of giddy girls—older and younger—and he was completely kind and chatty. It was the highlight of the conference.
Zusak’s style in Bridge of Clay was beautiful, and I enjoyed all of the story, but the ending slew me. I had no idea of what was coming, so gently and shockingly, and it took me a long time to recover. Everything fell into place, and I just loved those Dunbar boys.
Disclaimer: I read a bound manuscript of this novel, sent to my colleague by the publisher, and ever so generously lent to me first. Bridge of Clay will be published in October, 2018. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer.