Pub. Date: August 1, 2011
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
The Book Thief was no fluke. It was the culmination of years of work and growth from a gifted writer. When I began reading the first book in Underdogs, fearful that it would prove to be vastly inferior to The Book Thief (one of my all-time favorite books), I found real and rapid assurance that the hand that authored that masterpiece also wrote these words. In The Underdog, originally published in 1999 (and his first work), Markus Zusak’s talent and unique style, and the poetic beauty that shapes The Book Thief, are already present.
It’s nice to see all three titles about the Wolfe brothers — The Underdog, Fighting Ruben Wolfe, and Getting the Girl — bound in one volume. This makes for a great reading experience as the novellas seamlessly connect to form one unified work. And you’ll find that the writing is so good you’ll gobble up each piece whole. So it’s a relief not to have to hunt down another book or wait for another release to read more about Cameron and Ruben. It’s also worth noting that this publication is the first time American readers can get their hands on Zusak’s first book, The Underdog. (An observant reader might notice that the Australian version of Getting the Girl is titled When Dogs Cry. This is not just repackaging or marketing by the publisher. They bear different titles for good reason: Getting the Girl is actually a rewrite of When Dogs Cry. But I’ll talk more about this later.)
Let me tell you what I love about Markus Zusak’s writing: His characterization. He writes about real people. These aren’t heroic renderings of polished, perfect humans like you’ll find on TV. Cameron and Ruben, their family, and the other folks who inhabit their world, are dirty, flawed, messy, and raw. And it’s their sloppiness, their imperfections and vulnerabilities, these very human qualities, that give them life. Any time you read a Zusak book, you come away feeling like you know the characters, as if they are real people. And you feel you should be able to look out your window and find them walking in the streets. You know and understand them, and most importantly, you care about them.
I won’t tell you too much about the plot. A plot synopsis or book jacket will never entice you to read a Zusak book anyway. His books generally don’t have out-of-this-world-I-wonder-what-this-could-be-about premises. Instead, they are about ordinary people living ordinary lives. But there is extraordinary beauty in every day life, and that’s what Zusak is so gifted at revealing. When you read about Cameron and Ruben Wolfe, you’ll read about Loyalty. Family. Honor. Fear. Pain. Forgiveness. Longing. Hunger. Love. Pride. Fighting. Winning. And by watching Cameron learn to live his life, you’ll learn about Living.
I love this book, or rather, these books, more than I could express. In fact, when I read The Underdog, I was busy and got away from it. Not wanting to cheat the book or lose the emotion, I started again at the beginning and became so engrossed that I read the entire thing without pause. The next night, I did the same with Fighting Ruben Wolfe. With each tale, my emotional connection to the characters grew. By the end, I loved Cameron. I had laughed with and at him, ached and cried for him. And I was happy for and proud of him, too. It was difficult to say goodbye when the final story ended.
I didn’t need to say an abrupt farewell, though. After reading a note on Markus’ Facebook page, I discovered that there was a significant difference in the third book. Markus explains in this note (I wouldn’t recommend reading it until after you’ve read the book) that the American publisher requested a change in When Dogs Cry (which would be renamed Getting the Girl). I was curious as to how the book was altered and wanted to know what Zusak’s original vision was. I had to get my hands on a copy of the Aussie version. Luckily, Markus pointed readers to a couple of booksellers, and I was able to download an epub from an online store. (Now, this is the beauty of e-books! No need to wait for (and pay for) international shipping!) Once I had put the ebook on my Nook, I read it in one sitting. Then I re-read the last 100 pages of Getting the Girl. I was surprised at how the same story can be told so differently. As Zusak says, “It was a change that would take it on a different course to arrive at almost an identical ending.” However, while both titles end at the same place, with essentially the same final chapter, they are very different. I’m still trying to digest those differences. The emotional experience has changed. I don’t want to ruin it, but if you read Underdogs, I would encourage you to read When Dogs Cry. And if you’ve already read When Dogs Cry, you might want to get a copy of Underdogs or Getting the Girl to compare.
By all means, though, you MUST read Underdogs. You need to find out for yourself why I love Cameron Wolfe. Boy do I! Forget Team Edward or Team Jacob or Team Fill-in-the-blank-boy-heartthrob. I’m Team Cameron. And more than that, I’m Team Wolfe. Pick up this book, meet this family, and experience the beauty of Cameron’s heart, soul, and words.