64 pages 2 hours read

Markus Zusak

Bridge of Clay

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2018

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Summary and Study Guide


Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak is a young adult literary novel following the lives of the Dunbar boys, five brothers who live alone following the death of their mother and abandonment by their father. The novel follows a non-linear narrative that jumps between different characters, decades, and backstories to provide a comprehensive overview of why Clay, the fourth Dunbar brother, leaves home to help their father build a bridge years after having been deserted by him. Zusak is an Australian writer who has published six novels to date, and is most well-known for The Book Thief. He is the winner of awards like the Michael L. Prinz Honor Book award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. He also holds the Margaret A. Edwards Award from the American Library Association, granted to authors who make significant, lasting contributions to young adult literature.

This guide uses the Alfred A. Knopf first edition hardback copy of the novel.

Content Warning: This novel includes descriptions of illness, violence, and child neglect that may be distressing to some readers. There is also anti-gay bias and language within the text; such terms are only written in their original form if they appear in direct quotes from the novel.

Plot Summary

Bridge of Clay is a non-linear story told by Matthew Dunbar, the eldest of the five Dunbar boys. Divided into eight parts, many of the novel’s sections devote time to describing the pasts of people instrumental to the Dunbars’ lives. The novel begins as Matthew retrieves his grandmother’s typewriter 11 years after the novel’s inciting incident.

Eleven years prior, the Dunbar boys live in a house of intense chaos, violence, and love. Their mother, Penelope, died of cancer, and within six months, their father, Michael, left them. Matthew and Rory, the eldest two brothers, work to support the family; Henry, the middle brother, re-sells items found at garage sales and arranges sports bets. Second-youngest Clay engages in intense training and fighting, while the youngest brother Tommy collects animals.

Their father, dubbed “the Murderer,” arrives at their house and asks for help building a bridge for his property in Silver. Clay agrees to help him, although he is threatened with violence upon his return because he is betraying the loyalty of his brothers. Clay goes to the overgrown field behind the house, called The Surrounds, and thinks about his friend and crush Carey. The next day, he and Matthew have a meeting with the principal at Clay’s school to express Clay’s desire to drop out; Matthew gives his permission, and the two talk with Claudia Kirkby, a teacher who will become Matthew’s wife. Before Clay departs, Carey gifts him with an engraved lighter and a letter.

This section of the novel also tells the story of Penelope Lesciuszko, who will become Penelope Dunbar, Clay’s mother. Born in the Eastern Bloc, her talents for piano grant her the ability to tour with an orchestra. Her father arranges for her escape from communism without her knowledge, making her a refugee in Austria at the age of 18. After months in refugee camps, she is sent to Australia, where she learns English and becomes a cleaner. She receives news that her father died and uses her savings to buy a piano that is sent to Michael Dunbar’s address by mistake. He helps her move it into her apartment.

In the present day, Clay arrives in Silver and helps his father design the bridge. In the past, Michael Dunbar grows up in the small Australian town of Featherton. He grows obsessed with art after the death of his father. In high school, he falls in love with a girl named Abbey, but delays approaching her until the death of his dog. They move to Sydney following their high school graduation and get married. After four years, Abbey grows increasingly dissatisfied with Michael’s passivity and leaves him. Five years later, Michael and Penelope meet.

Clay’s father goes to work in the Featherton mines, leaving him to begin digging the bridge’s foundation. Clay becomes obsessed with the bridge, working for five days straight before returning to the city for a visit. He goes to his mother’s grave, then returns to Silver and his father’s praise. When Clay receives letters from Carey, Tommy, Rory, and Henry, he decides to return home for a visit. He arrives on Archer Street and is violently beaten by Matthew, but then welcomed inside.

In the past, Michael and Penelope engage in a slow courtship. Michael eventually tells her about Abbey, and a year later proposes to Penelope. The day before their wedding, Penelope is in a bad car accident, giving herself the moniker “the Broken-Nose Bride.” They later buy the house on Archer Street, and Penelope begins teaching English as a second language.

Clay and Matthew spend a day together in the present day and get new books from Claudia, who gives them her phone number. The Dunbar boys watch Carey jockey in a horse race; that night, Clay and Carey meet in The Surrounds, talking about racing and the bridge. Clay returns to Silver. In the past, Penelope and Michael have their sons, raising them in equal parts chaos and love. A constant source of conflict is the piano: Penelope wants her sons to learn, but they are resistant. Matthew is bullied by boys who claim he is gay for learning to play. The harassment escalates until he confesses the situation to his parents and Michael teaches him to fight. The same day Michael challenges the worst bully to a fight is the day that Penelope receives a cancer diagnosis and begins treatment. She takes each of her sons on a one-on-one outing to create positive memories. She is given six months to live by doctors.

Clay purchases a copy of the horse race schedule and takes breaks from building the bridge in the present to listen to Carey race on the radio. When his father goes to the mines to work, he goes to the city, spending his Saturday nights with Carey. She becomes increasingly successful, placing first multiple times. She rides in a renowned race on Easter Monday and wins. She meets Clay at The Surrounds.

In the past, following Penelope’s death, Clay runs the city streets at night searching for their missing father. Matthew has a frustrated outburst at his behavior but begins running with him for companionship. Clay joins track; he and Matthew begin bringing home pets for Tommy, naming them after characters from The Iliad. Clay makes a deal with Matthew that if he wins State, they will buy a mule they found advertised online.

Present Clay and Carey have sex and spend the rest of the night in The Surrounds; Carey leaves early in the morning for her jockey duties and Clay returns to Silver. However, Carey is killed while walking one of the horses, but it is not made clear if she was thrown or fell off due to fatigue. Matthew travels out to Silver to share the news with Clay. Clay enters a spiral of self-blame and returns with Matthew to the city. Clay approaches Carey’s parents and trainer, confessing what happened before her death and taking culpability; both parties absolve him of his guilt. Clay returns to Silver with the mule. In the past, Carey grows up in a family of jockeys, but her parents are resistant to letting her ride. She appeals to renowned trainer Ennis McAndrew and ultimately convinces her parents to let her apprentice beneath him. She meets Clay when her family moves to the city for her apprenticeship, and the two quickly become inseparable. Carey helps Clay track down Abbey, who provides the teenagers with more insight into Michael and his childhood. Carey is warned to cut Clay out of her life because she will not have time for relationships, but they instead develop a weekly ritual to meet at The Surrounds on Saturdays.

Clay and his father bond over loss as they complete the bridge, then travel to Featherton to see the place where Michael grew up. The rest of the Dunbar brothers take a spontaneous trip to Silver and play a football game in the riverbed, eventually joined by their father. Bridge complete, Clay returns to the city with his brothers and works with Matthew until the rainy season arrives. The family returns to Silver to see if the bridge holds under the strain of the overflowing river. After several days of being trapped in their father’s home, the water recedes, and the bridge remains standing. In the past, Penelope survives long past the six-month prognosis given to her by the doctors, but her condition worsens over time. She asks Michael to help her die, a conversation that Clay overhears. Michael carries Penelope outside, intending to put her in the family car while it is running in the garage, but cannot complete the act. Clay emerges from hiding and carries his mother into the garage.

After seeing his bridge successful, Clay leaves Australia. His brothers grow up and miss him. Matthew begins a relationship with Claudia and has two daughters. Together, they decide to wait until his 31st birthday for Clay to return, and if he is still absent, they will get married, Matthew begs his father to find Clay, so Michael travels to Italy. After nearly two months of waiting, he finds Clay. The day of Matthew’s wedding, Clay returns, and the brothers embrace on the lawn of their family home.

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By Markus Zusak