59 pages 1 hour read

Markus Zusak

I Am The Messenger

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2002

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Summary and Study Guide


Originally published in 2002, Markus Zusak’s I Am the Messenger is a young adult realistic fiction novel. Ed Kennedy, the protagonist and narrator, is a 19-year-old cab driver whose average life takes an unexpected turn when he stops a bank robber. After this moment of heroism, he begins receiving mysterious playing cards with cryptic messages that lead him to people in need of his assistance. The novel is set in suburban Sydney and draws on Zusak’s own experiences growing up in a working-class Australian family. The story has an unconventional structure and narrative style, including the use of direct addresses to the reader, and explores the themes of Potential for Personal Growth, Finding Meaning in Suffering, and The Power of Human Connection. The novel won numerous awards, including the Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature (2003), the Children’s Book Council of Australia Award for Book of the Year: Older Readers (2003), and the Michael L. Printz Honor (2006). Citations in this study guide refer to the eBook edition released by Alfred A. Knopf in 2018.

Content Warning: The novel contains mentions of substance abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and profanity.

Plot Summary

Ed Kennedy is only 19, but he already considers his life a failure. He works an unfulfilling job as a cab driver, he’s hopelessly in love with his friend Audrey, and he’s the only one of his siblings still living in the run-down town where he grew up. The highlights of his mediocre life are card games with his friends and walks with his ancient dog, the Doorman. Ed yearns to prove himself, and he has his chance when he prevents a bank robber’s escape. After this unexpected act of courage, a playing card bearing a mysterious message appears in Ed’s mailbox. The ace of diamonds lists three addresses. When Ed goes to 45 Edgar Street, he witnesses a man abusing his wife. Unprepared to intervene in this situation, Ed moves onto the next address, 13 Harrison Avenue. There, he meets 82-year-old Milla Johnson, who has spent 60 years waiting for her love to return from World War II. Milla thinks that Ed is Jimmy, her deceased husband, and their evenings together soothe her loneliness.

At the third address, 6 Macedoni Street, Ed meets a shy teenager named Sophie who runs barefoot every morning. Ed watches her lose her races week after week while she’s wearing shoes. After he gives her an empty shoe box, she competes barefoot and experiences perfect joy and freedom. Helping Milla and Sophie gives Ed the encouragement he needs to intervene at Edgar Street. Ed picks the intoxicated man up in his cab on his way home from a bar, drives him to a cliff, and threatens to kill him if he ever returns home. The man relocates to a mining town, freeing his wife and daughter from the fear in which they lived.

After Ed completes the ace of diamonds, two men named Daryl and Keith break into his home, attack him, and leave a new playing card. The ace of clubs sends Ed into the lives of three more people who need his help. The first is Thomas O’Reilly, a priest with a dwindling congregation. Ed raises attendance at the church by organizing a massive party after a Sunday service. Ed delivers his next message by buying an ice cream cone for Angie Carusso, a single mother who rarely receives any recognition for the sacrifices she makes. The third person on Ed’s list is Gavin Rose, a teenager who has frequent fistfights with his older brother, Daniel. Ed forges a bond of brotherhood between the Rose boys by beating Gavin up so that Daniel must come to his rescue. The Rose brothers further cement their loyalty by attacking Ed with four of their friends to avenge Gavin.

The third card, the ace of spades, requires Ed to unravel a series of literary clues to find three more addresses. At 114 Glory Road, Ed gives the kind but financially strained Tatupu family new Christmas lights. The second address takes him to an Italian restaurant, where he sees his mother on a date. When Ed confronts his mother, he learns that she had an affair and that she hates Ed because he reminds her of his late father. Telling Ed all of this brings his mother catharsis. The third address is a deserted movie theater on Bell Street owned by an elderly man named Bernie. Ed reminds Bernie of the joys of his youth by bringing Audrey to see a movie with him. A mysterious figure shatters their peaceful moment in the theater and leaves behind the ace of hearts.

To Ed’s dismay, the ace of hearts identifies his three closest friends as the recipients of his next messages. Ed encourages his aimless friend Ritchie to take an active role in his life and begin looking for work. Next, he discovers that his best friend, Marv, secretly has a child and helps Marv meet his daughter for the first time. Lastly, he delivers a message to Audrey, who struggles with emotional intimacy due to her painful home life. Ed dances with Audrey, and she allows herself to love and be loved, even if just for one song.

After completing all four aces, Ed feels victorious, but his triumph turns to dismay when a fifth card arrives. The joker bears Ed’s address, and he waits in suspense for a visitor. Weeks later, the would-be bank robber appears and orders Ed to drive to all 12 addresses where he’s delivered messages. The robber says that his time in prison was worthwhile because of the changes that Ed’s time as a messenger had on him and the people he helped, prompting Ed to realize that the robber was in on the plan all along.

Ed returns home, he finds a young man waiting for him with a folder full of notes on Ed’s life. Ed realizes that he is a fictional character and that the man is his author. The writer explains that he deliberately designed Ed to be mediocre and then gave him opportunities to make a difference to show that everyone can achieve more than they realize. Days later, Audrey asks Ed if she can live with him and kisses him. Ed briefly worries that this development may be just another plot point devised by the writer, but Audrey assures him that their love is authentically theirs. As Ed reflects on everything that has happened, he realizes that he is not the messenger after all, but rather the message.