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Underdogs

Review

Underdogs

Americans primarily know Australian author Markus Zusak (if they do at all) for THE BOOK THIEF, which won numerous awards, including a Printz Honor. It was also a New York Times bestseller when it was published in 2005. Now, Scholastic is releasing Zusak's first three novels, including his debut, which has never before been published in the United States, in a single omnibus volume. For fans, this outstanding collection of his work is a wonderful way to learn more about him. Newcomers will have the pleasure of getting to know not only this talented writer but also the rich and complicated Wolfe family, whose fortunes and misfortunes he traces in these three novels.

In an author's foreword, written in 2010, Zusak reflects on the re-publication of THE UNDERDOG, FIGHTING RUBEN WOLFE and GETTING THE GIRL, which were originally published in 1999, 2000 and 2001. He writes, "In the end, it's like finding an old photo of yourself; you hope for as little embarrassment as possible. Of course, there are so many things I'd love to change, but I also look back with a lot of happiness." As well he should, given that these books show off a writer coming into his own even as they tell the story of a most remarkable pair of brothers.

If ever the word "hardscrabble" could be used to describe a family, the Wolfes would be it. Cameron is the dreamer of his family, as well as a worrier. His brother, Steve, is the hotshot; his sister, Sarah, is a bit of a lost soul; and his other brother, Ruben, is the one Cam both admires and fears, the one he loves and loathes in equal measure. In the opening scene of THE UNDERDOG, Ruben has the brilliant idea to rob a dentist's office. But their life of crime gets sidelined when both brothers fall a little bit in love with the dental hygienist and wind up paying out-of-pocket to get checkups instead.

That's sort of how things go for the Wolfes. They might all share big dreams and grand plans, but inevitably something derails them, and they wind up making do with a lesser version instead. Take their backyard game "One Punch": they only have one pair of boxing gloves between the two of them, so they each take one and hope for the best. In FIGHTING RUBEN WOLFE and GETTING THE GIRL, however, this rudimentary "sport" proves to be the ticket that Ruben, at least, has been waiting for --- the chance to finally turn his dreams into something resembling reality.

Meanwhile, Cam --- who participates in all the action but is, first and foremost, an observer --- is coming into his own as a writer, a lover of words and language. Near the beginning of FIGHTING RUBEN WOLFE, he articulates his own perspective on the place of his family in their world: "We are wolves, which are wild dogs, and this is our place in the city. We are small and our house is small on our small urban street. We can see the city and the train line and it's beautiful in its own dangerous way. Dangerous because it's shared and taken and fought for." Near the end of THE UNDERDOG, Cam also has a near-ecstatic moment of awareness, a validation of the place of words and language in his understanding of his life and his world.

At times, this juxtaposition of lyricism with working-class realities and even violence may seem jarring. But, especially given Zusak's biographical note at the beginning of the volume, it's also completely genuine. Beauty and violence can, and do, go hand-in-hand in Zusak's world and in the lives of his characters. The Wolfe brothers' stories are poignant, powerful and passionately real --- and they showcase a writer who deserves a wider audience in the United States.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 1, 2011

Underdogs
by Markus Zusak

  • Publication Date: November 26, 2013
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0545542596
  • ISBN-13: 9780545542593