Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1670
Part One: The First Message
I Am the Messenger begins with a botched bank robbery. The gunman is so incompetent he drops his gun and steals a car that barely runs. Ed Kennedy, a directionless nineteen-year-old cab driver, picks up the gun and prevents the robber from leaving. Ed is hailed as a hero even though he is not usually the hero type. His “bewildered face is plastered all over the front pages.”
After the hype dies down, Ed goes back to his ordinary life. He drives his cab, and in his spare time he plays cards with his friends or hangs out with his coffee-drinking dog, the Doorman. Ed is in love with his best friend, Audrey, who loves him back but refuses to start a relationship with him. Audrey is afraid of love.
One day Ed receives a playing card, an Ace of Diamonds, in his mailbox. On the card, someone has written three addresses and times. He wonders who could have sent it. His ma, who does not hide the fact that she hates him, would never bother. His friend Marv is too dumb, and Ritchie is too lazy. Audrey could have done it, but she insists she did not. She says the card probably appeared because Ed was in the newspaper. Ed thinks about this for several days, and then he decides to visit the addresses listed on the card.
At the first address, shortly after midnight, Ed sees a man stagger home drunk and rape his wife. Ed knows what he should do but he is too afraid to do it. He is small and weak, and the rapist is “built like a brick s***house.” He goes back night after night, watching the man commit the same crime again and again, and he does nothing about it.
Ed moves on to the second address, where he is relieved to see nothing more frightening than an old woman eating dinner by herself. She is obviously lonely, so one day Ed knocks on her door. Her name is Milla Johnson. She invites him in, calls him Jimmy, and asks where he has been all these years. He soon he makes a regular habit of visiting her and reading to her from Wuthering Heights. Eventually he discovers that Jimmy died in the war and that Milla has been waiting for him for sixty years.
Ed is still afraid of dealing with the rapist at the first address, so he moves on to the third. Every morning, he sees a teenage girl emerge from a house and run barefoot through a park. She runs joyfully, and she is beautiful. He soon realizes, however, that she does not run so well in competition. She always wears shoes to her meets, so one morning Ed knocks on her door and gives her father an empty shoebox. At the next meet, the girl runs barefoot. She still loses, but her running looks beautiful and joyful the way it does in the mornings. Afterward she thanks Ed and asks him if he is a saint.
A bit more confident now, Ed returns to the first house. He approaches the front door, where the couple’s small daughter is sitting outside crying. He promises her he will try to help, but he is still too scared to go in. That night, he finds a gun in his letterbox. He drives to the rapist’s street and picks him up. He drugs the man with doped vodka and beats him with the gun, threatening to kill him. Afterward the man flees town, leaving his wife and daughter behind.
Part Two: The Stones of Home
One day Ed arrives home and finds two men in balaclavas eating meat pies in his kitchen. They admit they are connected to the card Ed received, but they refuse to say who hired them. They beat Ed up and give him an envelope containing an Ace of Clubs. On it someone has written, “Say a prayer at the stones of home.”
One day a man who knows Ed’s name gets into his cab and makes him drive to a river. When they arrive, the man refuses to pay for the trip. He gets out of the cab, and Ed chases him. He is out of shape, so he ends up collapsing on some rocks. Three names are scrawled on these stones: Thomas O’Reilly, Angie Carusso, and Gavin Rose.
Thomas O’Reilly is a priest with an empty church. Ed fills the place up by throwing a party and serving free beer. Angie Carusso is a young, single mother who works hard and takes her three bratty kids for ice cream once a week. She never gets an ice cream for herself, so Ed does that for her. Gavin Rose is a fourteen-year-old jerk who hates his older brother. Ed decides that Gavin and his brother need a challenge to unite them, so he beats Gavin badly. Afterward, the boys bond with each other by ganging up on Ed and giving him an even worse beating.
Part Three: Trying Times for Ed Kennedy
The third card is an Ace of Spades bearing the names of Graham Green, Morris West, and Sylvia Plath. Ed borrows these authors’ books from the library and, after struggling with them for a while, figures out a code that tells him three more addresses. He buys Christmas lights for a poor family and brightens the life of an old man who runs a movie theater.
Ed has been hanging out with his friends, Audrey included, a bit less since his strange job as a messenger started. One day Audrey appears on his porch and says he is different now. “Now you’re somebody,” she says, but she adds that he seems more distant now. She says she wants their friendship to stay the same, and Ed promises that it will—even though he wants it to grow into a romantic relationship.
At another address from the latest card, Ed sees his mother on a date. He grows angry, but after a while he realizes that this feeling has nothing to do with his father, who died six months ago. Ed is jealous that his mother, an old lady, has a love life while he, her young son, does not. He knocks on her door to talk to her about it, and she is rude and surly as usual. In the end he asks why she hates him so much, and she says he reminds her of his father. She predicts that, like his father, Ed will spend his whole life as an underachiever.
Part Four: The Music of Hearts
Ed celebrates Christmas with his friends, his unloving family, and the thankful recipients of his messages from the cards. Afterward, he has to act on the Ace of Hearts, which prompts him to help his three best friends: Ritchie, Marv, and Audrey.
Ritchie lives with his parents. He does not have a job or any ambitions, and he spends every night sitting alone in his kitchen. Ed does not want to break Ritchie’s equilibrium, but he knows he has to. He tells Ritchie he is a disgrace to himself. Under Ed’s pressure, Ritchie starts looking for a job.
Marv is next. He has been saving money for years, but he never spends any. Ed thinks Marv’s problem must relate to this, but he does not know how to approach it. Eventually he asks for a loan, and Marv confesses that he cannot give him one. The money is for his old girlfriend, Suzanne Boyd. When he and Suzanne were still in high school, she got pregnant and left town with her family. Marv wants to go meet the child and give her his money, but he is too scared of her father. Ed offers to go along.
At the Boyd house, Suzanne’s father beats Marv up and tells him to leave. Ed stands up to the man and says that Marv may have caused him shame, but he also came and faced him, knowing it might turn out like this. “You don’t get any more decent and proud than that,” he says. Suzanne’s father backs down, and the couple is reunited.
Audrey’s problem is that she does not allow herself to feel love. She loves Ed but keeps him at a distance and refuses to be with him. One night Ed shows up at her house, takes her outside, and dances with her in the street. Then he leaves her alone to decide what to do now that she knows what real love is really like.
After the fourth ace, Ed thinks he is finished. However, a final card arrives with his own address written on it. He waits, hoping that the sender of the cards will reveal himself. A series of visitors comes by, sending him on a complicated journey that keeps returning to his house. In the end, he meets a young man who explains that he made up Ed’s story and even created Ed himself. When Ed asks why, the man says:
I did it because you are the epitome of ordinariness, Ed...and if a guy like you can stand up and do what you did for all those people, well, maybe everyone can.... Maybe even I can.
The man explains that Ed is a fictional character; to prove it, he gives Ed a copy of his story. Before he leaves, he assures Ed that the people who populate stories are real, with lives of their own.
A few days later, Audrey comes over, sleeps with Ed, and agrees to be with him. Afterward Ed looks for this in the story his visitor gave him, but he does not find it. Audrey says that their relationship does not belong to the writer but to them. Ed realizes that he is not a messenger, as he always thought: “I am the message.”
Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1171
Author: Markus Zusak (b. 1975)
First published: 2002
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Coming-of-age; Realistic fiction
Time of plot: Unspecified
Locale: An unnamed Australian town
Ed Kennedy, a nineteen-year-old cabdriver with little direction in his life
Audrey, a fellow cabdriver he wishes were more than just a friend
Marv, another fellow cabdriver, known for his junker car
Ritchie, another fellow cabdriver, named for his badly drawn tattoo
Ma, his foul-mouthed mother, who compares him unfavorably to his siblings
The Doorman, his smelly, lazy, but beloved dog
I Am the Messenger (2002), Australian writer Markus Zusak's fourth young-adult novel, begins with protagonist Ed Kennedy lying face down on the floor of a local bank, menaced by a robber with a gun. As the incompetent robber flees, he drops his gun, and Ed picks it up and stops him. Suddenly, Ed—an underage cabdriver with no particular accomplishments whose best friend is his smelly dog—is a hero. And here his troubles begin.Courtesy of Random House Children's Books
At nineteen, Ed feels he has achieved nothing in his life. Unlike his more successful siblings, he has never left the suburban town where he was born, never attended university, and has no career beyond driving a cab. He is hopelessly in love with his friend Audrey, who has no interest in a romantic relationship with Ed or anyone else. When he is not driving a cab, Ed's nights are spent playing cards with Audrey and his other work buddies, Marv and Ritchie. Ed's father died an alcoholic, and his mother has no problem telling him that he is a disappointment to her. However, after the bank robbery, Ed's life changes in ways he could not have imagined. He receives an anonymous letter containing a playing card, the ace of diamonds, with three addresses and times scrawled on it.
Over the next few chapters, Ed investigates the three addresses. At the first, a large, brutal man drunkenly sexually assaults his wife as their daughter cries in terror. Ed is horrified by the violence he witnesses but is unsure how to stop it. Instead, he checks out the next address. This time, he finds a lonely old woman eating dinner alone. She thinks he is her lost love, who was killed in World War II. He continues to visit her regularly while moving on to the next address, where he finds a teenage girl, Sophie, who runs barefoot each morning for the pure joy of it. But when she competes in a race wearing uncomfortable running shoes, she loses. Ed's gift to her is an empty shoe box. Understanding his gift, Sophie runs barefoot in her next race, and while she still does not win, she has reclaimed the grace and ease of her early morning runs. Having helped two people, Ed returns to the assignment he dreads: helping the woman on Edgar Street. Eventually, he finds an unexpected way to resolve the moral dilemma.
In the next section, Ed is visited by two thugs who deliver a new card, the ace of clubs, with an obscure message. This riddle takes him into his own past and gives him three names of people he must help, and soon he finds himself bringing people to a priest's fading church, giving a moment of hope to a lonely young mother, and forging a bond between two angry brothers.
Next, Ed finds an ace of spades with the names of three famous writers. His quest sends him to the library to puzzle out the connection between these writers and the people he must help. As he finds the things that bring joy to others' lives, he begins thinking more deeply about himself and his friends. Normally, he and his work buddies are content to play cards without looking too deeply into each other's lives. He thinks most about Audrey; however, Audrey, who grew up in an abusive family, refuses to risk the safety of friendship for the potential heartbreak of a romantic relationship. She has sex with a roster of casual boyfriends but avoids emotional entanglement, especially with Ed.
As Ed takes a deeper look at his friends, he finds an unexpected secret in Marv's past and helps him reconnect with a lost love. Finally, Ed receives a joker card with his own address on it. Looking within, he confronts his mother about her coldness and learns some hard truths. The novel ends with Ed and Audrey opening up to each other and trusting that their love will last beyond one night. Ed meets the person behind the playing cards, but the messenger's identity is perhaps not the point. What he has really learned, he tells Audrey, is that if he, an ordinary guy, can find the strength to change people's lives, then anyone can.
Like his critically acclaimed Michael L. Printz Honor novel The Book Thief (2005), Zusak's I Am the Messenger, which had also been named a Printz Honor Book in 2006, focuses on acts of courage in the lives of ordinary people. While The Book Thief is set in extraordinary times—Germany during the Holocaust—I Am the Messenger uses a contemporary suburban setting, with no events of historical significance. Rather, it focuses on the small, personal actions people can take to create positive change in themselves and the world around them.
I Am the Messenger garnered mostly positive reviews. School Library Journal noted the intrigue of the dark twists and turns of the mystery that drives its plot. Because the mysterious messages are such an important part of Zusak's story, some reviewers were disappointed by the final revelation of the messenger's identity. Booklist praised the authentic, engaging narrative but found the ending unsatisfying. The Horn Book Magazine also thought readers might feel disappointed by the ending, while acknowledging Zusak's authentic and humorous first-person voice.
I Am the Messenger is a realistic, gritty look at the challenges of everyday life for young people finding their way into adulthood. It presents imperfect yet endearing characters who struggle to do the right thing but do not always succeed. The mystery of the playing cards provides a narrative drive that keeps the episodic story moving, while Ed's humorous, self-deprecating narrative voice offers a message about perseverance and the value of helping others without moralizing.
- Cooper, Ilene. Review of I Am the Messenger, by Markus Zusak. Booklist, 1–15 Jan. 2005, p. 852. Literary Reference Center, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=15831671&site=ehost-live&scope=site. Accessed 23 Mar. 2017.
- Martin, Hillias J. Review of I Am the Messenger, by Markus Zusak. School Library Journal, Feb. 2005, p. 144. Literary Reference Center, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=16010651&site=ehost-live&scope=site. Accessed 23 Mar. 2017.
- Sieruta, Peter D. Review of I Am the Messenger, by Markus Zusak. The Horn Book Magazine, Mar./Apr. 2005, pp. 210–11. Literary Reference Center, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=16097376&site=ehost-live&scope=site. Accessed 23 Mar. 2017.