Reviewed by Marcus Hammond

Underdogs is a collection of Zusak’s first young adult novels. The book includes The Underdog, Fighting Ruben Wolfe, and Getting the Girl. All three books deal with the adolescent struggles of the Wolfe brothers and more specifically the narrator, Cameron. Zusak uses simple, realistic, and at times poetic and image rich prose to relate the turmoil of growing up in a working class environment.

As The Underdog begins, the Wolfe brothers are portrayed as wild, trouble making teenagers with a lot of imagination and very little motivation to succeed. Throughout the story the bond of brothers and best friends between Cameron, the younger brother by a year, and Ruben becomes clear as they fight, plan robberies, and generally cause trouble together. While the various plots the boys think up are entertaining, it is Cameron’s struggle to understand the relationships around him that are at the heart of the novel. A clear maturing process occurs as Cameron struggles to understand his role in the world around him.

In Fighting Ruben Wolfe, Zusak continues Cameron’s journey through adolescence as he struggles with the now more adult world. As the novel opens, The Wolfe family faces financial hardships after Mr. Wolfe suffers a debilitating injury. This financial hardship resounds throughout the novel as both the Wolfe Brothers struggle between their boyish plots and the reality of poverty. As the family struggles emotionally and financially to endure their problems, the boys embark on an opportunity to earn money boxing. As the novel progresses it becomes clear that Ruben fights to overcome his fear of failure, while Cameron simply fights to survive and remain at his brother’s side. Those differences create an emotional divide between the boys, but they learn that their inherited strong will to survive provides them with the identity they are both searching for.

Getting the Girl continues to focus on Cameron’s youthful struggle to connect with the world around him. Cameron longs to experience love firsthand. He lucks out when an ex-girlfriend of Ruben’s seeks him out. The girl engulfs Cameron in a blanket of intense emotion that makes him feel complete in one moment and torn apart in another. Through the experiences with the girl, however, Cameron begins to realize his self worth.

Overall, Underdogs tell an amazingly cohesive tale of adolescent confusion and angst with a heart-warming conclusion. The emotion-rich prose with which Cameron’s struggles are portrayed creates a nostalgic feeling within the reader. Through that nostalgia Cameron can be seen as a symbol for the strength it takes to rise above one’s own teenage struggles.

Rating: 4/5

After obtaining a Masters in Liberal Arts and Literature Marcus has dedicated most of his time to teaching English Composition for a community college in the Midwest. In his down time, he spends time avidly reading an eclectic selection of books and doing freelance writing whenever he gets the chance. He lives in Kansas with his wife.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Arthur A. Levine Books. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.