Monday, December 1, 2014

I Am the Messenger

Plot Summary
Underage cab driver Ed Kennedy accidentally foils a bank robbery, thinks nothing of it, then is surprised to be chosen as some sort of messenger. Playing cards are delivered to the shack where he lives with his dog, the Doorman. Ed has to decipher the meaning of each card, then complete the task associated with each of the names or addresses on the card. Nothing is explained to him - he has to decipher the purpose of each task on his own. He knows he has to complete everything before a bigger truth is revealed to him, but he can’t stop wondering who put him up to this, and why they picked him.

Critical Analysis
Ed Kennedy is a perfect character, because he is so imperfect. He lied about his age to get a job as a cab driver after his dad died from alcohol abuse. He lives in a shack - and drinks coffee- with his dog, the Doorman. He regularly plays cards with three friends, one of whom he’s in love with. His life seems to have no purpose, and this doesn’t really bother him until he realizes there’s more out there. The messages he interprets show him that he is a good person, and deserves to live a good life. He is easy to identify with regardless of the reader’s age, but I think young adults will really take a shining to him. His friends are also complex, interesting characters with great backstories the reader learns right along with Ed.

The book opens on a bank robbery; Ed and his friends are inside, on the floor, watching the incompetent thief trying to get his hands on the money. Ed foils the robbery, somewhat accidentally, and just as incompetently. He is, however, lauded as a hero in his hometown, and enjoys a bit of fame as a result. Once the attention dies down, he returns to his job as a cab driver and wonders what is the point of his life. When playing cards are delivered to his shack with brief instructions, Ed finds himself delivering messages he learns on his own. It seems to be an unlikely plot, but after Ed’s name being all over the news due to the robbery, it’s not hard to believe that someone would pick him to do good all over town. Ed realistically struggles to decipher each message, and learns something from each, while still suffering through his own problems.

Ed and his friends live in a small town in Australia. It’s easy to picture the small town, especially if you’re hearing Marc Aden Gray’s Australian accent in the audiobook! The description is shown by Ed being able to walk from his shack to his job, as well as many other places in town, but needing to drive to a few places that seem to be out in the country. This setting is perfect for the story, because it’s believable that people in a small town would hail Ed a hero for stopping a thief, but Ed himself wouldn’t know everyone he was delivering messages to.

When we first meet Ed, he is wasting time by living his life passively. He works as a cab driver, a job he only got because he lied about his age. He lives in a shack with a smelly dog, and spends most of his time with the same three friends - one of whom he’s in love with, but never makes a move. Ed’s transformation is slow, which makes it realistic. He learns life lessons with each message he delivers, and he looks at his own life differently and tries to figure out what he wants. There is no sudden epiphany, and the ending is left open for him to grow even more. I think this approach is best because there is no heavy-handed moral or lesson that will make young adult readers feel preached to, but they can relate to Ed’s gradual change of heart.

Zusak’s writing style is casual and conversational, which fits the story and theme perfectly. There is some Australian slang thrown in, which is one of the main reasons I’d suggest listening to the audiobook. Hearing the dialect spoken aloud helps the book read smoother, and helps the reader understand the slang with context clues. Ed’s dog “talking” to him seemed a little far-fetched for this book, because that’s the only magical or fantastical element, but it didn’t ruin the story.

Personal Response
I listened to this as an audiobook and absolutely loved it! Marc Aden Gray, with his Australian accent, was the perfect narrator since the characters are Australian. He seemed to have fun with the narration, changing his tone according to the story, and even changing his voice for different characters. This really helped pull me into the story. Most audiobooks I’d tried to listen to previously were read more straight-forward, so my mind wandered instead of paying attention to the story. I Am the Messenger made me think of radio shows from the time before TV, when families would gather ‘round to listen to a story, instead of turn on the TV and expect to be entertained.
     The audiobook was well-done, but I would have loved this story regardless of how I read it. There was a bit of suspense and mystery throughout the whole story, and I really identified with Ed. The ending, however, has to be one of my favorite book endings ever. I kep thinking about it - and that’s all I’ll say! Read it for yourself and you’ll understand why it might have ruined me for all other books!

Reviews & Awards
I Am the Messenger is a 2005 Printz Honor Book. School Library Journal raves: “Zusak's characters, styling, and conversations are believably unpretentious, well conceived, and appropriately raw. Together, these key elements fuse into an enigmatically dark, almost film-noir atmosphere where unknowingly lost Ed Kennedy stumbles onto a mystery - or series of mysteries - that could very well make or break his life.”
     I love reading different reviews; it’s like listening to a book club discussion! Booklist disliked the ending, saying “Zusak is too clever by half. He offers too few nuts-and-bolts details before wrapping things up with an unexpected, somewhat unsatisfying recasting of the narrative.”

Connections & Activities
The ideal audience for this book is high school and up. Since these readers have major life changes around the bend, push this activity outside of the library or classroom. Have readers think about the messages Ed delivered - the safe ones! Most were good deeds. What good deeds could students do to change the course of their own life, or at least broaden their worldview? Deliver meals to the homebound? Read books to preschool children? Visit senior citizens at the retirement home? Volunteer at a soup kitchen? The possibilities are endless!

Read it for yourself!
Zusak, Markus. 2006. I Am the Messenger. Narrated by Marc Aden Gray. New York: Random House Inc. Listening Library. Audiobook.

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