Bridge of Clay

Book review by
Mary Cosola, Common Sense Media
Bridge of Clay Book Poster Image
Expansive, touching saga of Aussie family's losses, loves.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Frequent references to ancient myths, especially The Odyssey and The Iliad. Information on the Pont du Gard, a Roman-built aqueduct in France. Details on horse racing. Some references to Michelangelo's work and personal history.

Positive Messages

Love and sticking together through thick and thin are major themes. Always leave room in your heart for forgiveness. You never fully know what other people are going through, even those closest to you. Spend time with your loved ones, sharing and listening to family histories. Sometimes you have put aside your hurt feelings and be the one to reach out and mend problems.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The Dunbar boys are flawed, but each has a good heart and a lot of love for their family. Clay especially shows deep empathy and concern for others. Carey is strong and smart, and she's an understanding and caring friend to Clay. Penny Dunbar is a wonderful, loving mother and wife. Michael Dunbar leaves his family, but he has many good qualities that come to light. Most of the secondary characters are good, caring people.

Violence

The Dunbar brothers fight one another frequently, sometimes in fun, sometimes in anger. Lots of roughhousing among the boys. Clay engages in violent races, where others try to knock him down and keep him from crossing the finish line. One car-crash scene with broken bones and blood. A father raps his daughter's knuckles when she makes mistakes on piano. Mom paddles kids with a wooden spoon. Boy gets into serious, bloody fistfight at school. Some verbal anti-gay bullying.

Sex

Romance, love, and dating feature heavily in the story. Boys discuss women's bodies and looks; and they pass around a Playboy magazine. Some kissing and sex, but none of it described graphically. It is more referenced than shown.

Language

Characters swear somewhat frequently, including, "s--t," "bastard," "Goddamn," "f--k," "prick," Jesus," "bulls--t," "hell," "God," "Christ," "bitch," "tits," "balls," "piss," and "Jesus Christ." Also some Australian swearing, including "bloody," "bugger," and "arsehole."

Consumerism

References to movies and some board games, including Bachelor Party, The Goonies, Chariots of Fire, Gallipoli, Mad Max, Monopoly, Connect Four, and Sorry.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Rory is shown after heavy drinking several times. Penny and Michael have a beer or a drink a few times. Penny takes the whole family for a pint at the pub before she dies, even her underage kids. Parents shown smoking cigarettes a few times.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Bridge of Clay, by Markus Zusak (The Book Thief), is about five Australian boys raising themselves after their mother's death and their father's subsequent abandonment of them. The story delves into the individual histories of many of the characters, spanning decades and unearthing family secrets. Loss and love are the major themes, giving families much to discuss about the different ways people handle grief and tough times. The five Dunbar boys are rowdy, swear a bit ("bastard," "f--k," "s--t," "goddamn"), and frequently physically fight one another. Rory, one of the brothers, drinks heavily at times. Romantic relationships feature prominently in the story, but scenes of kissing and sex are not described graphically.

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What's the story?

BRIDGE OF CLAY tells the story of the five rough-and-tumble, parentless Dunbar brothers and their struggle to raise themselves, focusing primarily on the life and hardships of the fourth boy, Clay. Though the building of a physical bridge is an essential plot point, the real story is much more about the building of metaphorical bridges between family, friends, and generations. The narrative moves back and forth in time, covering the young years of Penny and Michael Dunbar, the boys' parents; the missing parents in every generation; courtships; illnesses; family love and fights; and a few deeply buried secrets. Each step of the way, characters wonder how they will get through life, given the roadblocks they frequently encounter. When Penny dies, Michael walks out of his children's lives without a word. He slips away emotionally at first, then physically leaves them on their own. More tragedy strikes, and Clay and his brothers grapple with guilt, memories, and how to be there for one another no matter what else may come.

Is it any good?

Themes of loss, grief, and love reverberate across the generations of an Australian family in this sweeping, poetic novel from Markus Zusak. Bridge of Clay is slow to start and scattered at times. The story jumps around in time, with flashbacks within memories, making it occasionally hard to follow. The writing is beautiful in spots, and Zusak fans will find much of the flowery (and sometimes ponderous) prose they love him for.

The five Dunbar boys are easy to like. Their love for each other jumps off the page, and their interactions are endearing. Clay, especially, is a wonderful, interesting, and complex character. The novel is best when it's tackling issues of loss, memory, and how grief is different for everybody, even within the same family. The loss of parents and the way it effects those left behind for the rest of their lives forms the basis of the story, as everyone in the Dunbar family has lost at least one parent, either to death, emigration, or abandonment. While the daily lives of all the Dunbars, especially their relationships inside and outside the family, are  portrayed in great detail, some of the big and important plot reveals are depicted in a vague, confusing way. The story would benefit from tighter pacing and better explanation of the plot surprises, but as it is, many readers are sure to fall in love with the Dunbar boys and their fierce ways of loving one another and preserving their family history.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about books and movies that jump back and forth in time, like Bridge of Clay. Do you find this an interesting way to tell a story? Why or why not? Do you ever get confused when reading books or watching movies that use this technique?

  • How do you feel about stories centered on the loss of parents? Is it interesting to you to see how different characters deal with such a huge loss? Does it help you empathize with people you know who have experienced this kind of loss?

  • Do you have any coping mechanisms or things you like to do to take your mind off your troubles? Such as running, painting, writing, or other hobbies?

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