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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Zusak's story takes place in Australia around the time of World War II, and it follows the lives of five brothers who raise themselves. After their mother dies and their father abandons the boys, the brothers raise each other in a home of chaos, fun, and drama.

Zusak's style is unique, as he weaves many different elements of life together. The novel begins,

In the beginning there was one murderer, one mule and one boy, but this isn't the beginning.

He also provides strong descriptions of events, people, and places:

As it was . . . another blistering February evening: the day had cooked the concrete, the sun still high and aching.

Cars were stubbed out rather than parked, and the power lines dropped from the weight of mute, hot, and bothered pigeons.

During this era of war, the narrator (Matthew) describes a local town:

The town itself was a hard, distant storyland; you could see it from afar. There was all the straw-like landscape, and marathons of sky. Around it, a wilderness of low scrub and gum trees stood close by and it was true . . . the people sloped and slouched. The world had worn them down.

For the five boys, life was a constant adventure. Matthew states,

...who and why and what we are: A family of ramshackle tragedy. A comic book kapow of boys and blood and beasts.

Most considered us tearaways. Barbarians. Mostly they were right.

We swore like bastards, fought like contenders, and punished each other at pool, at table tennis...at Monopoly, darts, football, cards, at everything we could get our hands on.

The boys acted like most boys do:

Tommy, thoroughly thirteen, took a running jump and brought all three of them down, arms and legs, boys, and floor.

Telling the family saga, Matthew shares this about his brother Clay:

There was a boy and a son and a brother. Yes, always for us there was a brother, and he was the one—the one of us amongst five of us—who took all of it on his shoulder.

He leads readers into the tales of the brothers by stating,

Let me tell you about our brother. The fourth Dunbar boy named Clay. Everything happened to him. We were all of us changed through him.

Matthew describes his brother further with admiration:

We would tell him what to do. He would do it. We would torture him. He would endure it.

Clay was the mysterious builder of bridges for the family:

Clay was warming up. Truth be told, Clay was always warming up . . . It bears mentioning that what our brother was training for was as much a mystery to him as it was to us. He only knew he was working and waiting for the day he’d find out.

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