Markus Zusak’s ‘Bridge of Clay’ Respects a Young Person’s Desire for Agency

Considering its YA audience, Markus Zusak's Bridge of Clay is a superb and accessible gateway to developing critical literacy skills.

Bridge of Clay
Markus Zusak
Knopf Books for Young Readers
Oct 2018

Bridge of Clay is the highly anticipated novel by celebrated Australian author Markus Zusak. After receiving global acclaim for 2006’s The Book Thief, Zusak became an international bestselling author for young adult literature. Readers have waited 13 years for Bridge of Clay, finally released in the United States this October. The novel is a sprawling family saga depicting the lives of the five Dunbar brothers, living alone after their mother’s death and their father’s abandonment. Marketed as young adult fiction, Zusak has again proven his ability to present complicated and demonstrative ideas in an authentic and accessible manner. Whereas the comparisons to The Book Thief are few, Zusak’s classic and Bridge of Clay share the ability to inspire emerging readers while serving as a practical teaching tool and catalyst for engaging curriculum development.

The novel is narrated by the eldest Dunbar, Matthew, in a method utilizing flashbacks and heavy foreshadowing. Mathew carefully develops the brothers’ narratives thereby establishing luminous and unique identities for each character. The novel’s theme of redemption is primarily embodied by Michael Dunbar, the boys’ father, while his sons signal forgiveness. When Penelope, their mother, succumbs to cancer, Michael abandons the boys and takes up residence deep in the Australian woods. After several years, he returns to ask the boys for help in constructing a bridge. A seemingly simple request, Michael is actually testing their tenuous relationship to determine if forgiveness is possible. The only Dunbar boy willing to help Michael is Clay thereby sparking the series of events leading to the family’s reunification and the novel’s crux.

Bridge of Clay is an epic novel thrusting readers into the middle of a rowdy and rambunctious family. Characters undergo sweeping arches exhibiting a human’s culpability while extenuating flaws, grief, and regret. It’s easy to approve of the taciturn Clay or become infuriated when his brother Rory is allowed to drop out of school and carouse the local bars without consequence. Ultimately both are cast in careful nuance demarcating their vulnerabilities and foibles. Infuriatingly, the adults in the novel are negligent. Matthew, due to his age, is given guardianship of his brothers but he is blasé about the responsibilities. The other adults in the neighborhood react to the abandonment as if it were an endearing Dunbar quirk. The schools are simply looking for reasons for the boys to drop out. From an adult perspective, this irresponsibility is completely fictionalized. But from a young readers’ perspective, this reflects a penchant for independence. Whether it’s realistic or not, Zusak practices careful audience awareness by centralizing a young person’s desire for agency.

Bridge of Clay‘s preeminent cultural contribution is not as a stalwart novel, but rather as a teaching tool. Considering the YA audience, the novel is a superb and accessible gateway to developing critical literacy skills. For example, the symbol of the bridge is an overt metaphor for reconnection while the fighting and racing themes are more subtly connected to the central plot. The symbolism is a teachable device capable of leading students towards understanding the basics of interpretation. Simultaneously, the novel’s authenticity is magnificent. Zusak’s portrayal of grief is genuine and each of the Dunbar brothers’ response to their mother’s death is inimitable. Their standpoints transfer easily into a character analysis assignment. More so, Penelope’s subplot situating her as a refugee struggling with assimilation reflects contemporary discourses. This can surely incite a stimulating discussion about the differences between fiction and reality. Without question, Bridge of Clay features several points of entry for teaching and learning critical reading skills.

Similarly, Zusak employs varied subtexts including Greek mythology, Michelangelo’s art, and ’80s movies. Here again, a student can select an appealing subtextual mode then practice comparative and deconstructive analysis skills. The connection with Greek Mythology is most evident as the family’s animals are named after mythological figures including Achilles the mule and Telemachus the pigeon. However, Michael’s and Penelope’s narrative is a clear remaking of The Odyssey, a novel featured prominently throughout Bridge of Clay. Teachers who use Zusak’s novels will certainly inspire a love of reading and possibly embolden students who question and promote social change.

Since the story takes place over decades, its scope is winding and expansive. At times, however, it fails to maintain the readers’ attention. Throughout Bridge of Clay, Zusak employs a storytelling technique where a character divulges a plot detail yet the point is not revisited for several hundred pages later. The foreshadowing is easily lost among the plot’s largess. The entirety of the novel is character development and a study of interpersonal relationships. This results in long and tedious exposition. For example, there’s a significant amount of description about the history of horse racing as this directly connects to the secondary character, Carey, Clay’s girlfriend. She’s tangential to the central plot and her focused character development is unnecessary. The narrative is rambling and a more concise exposition would certainly have illuminated Clay and his brothers more favorably.

Despite the novel’s ambitious scope, Bridge of Clay is a sensitive and consciousness contribution to the YA genre. Zusak fills the novel with titillating literary techniques promoting engaging critical thinking and creative pedagogy. Bridge of Clay stimulates the imagination while magnifying the readers’ compassion.

RATING 6 / 10