Fighting Ruben Wolfe
is a young adult fiction by Markus Zusak. Phrased in the unique and informal dialect of rural Australia, it is told from the perspective of Cameron Wolfe, the brother of a temperamental amateur boxer. The Cameron brothers are ashamed of their family’s poverty, and decide to take up fighting to prove themselves. In the process, they learn that the cathartic physical feat of combat not only releases energy, it earns them self-worth. It also brings out a unique emotional life in each of them, as they use their bodies to unconsciously respond to internal and external conflict. By the end of the novel, they engage each other in combat, learning that though fighting can stimulate the expression of repressed emotions, it is wisest to be selective about which fights to pick, as undiscriminating combat can emotionally harm an instigator as well as his opponent.
The novel begins in a time of financial depression for the working class Wolfe family. Their father, Mr. Wolfe, has recently lost his job as a plumber due to an injury. Offered temporary welfare for his disability, he refuses, associating taking government money with the rejection of personal dignity. Disgusted, Cameron and Ruben’s older brother, Steve, takes this opportunity to finally move out of the house. Reacting to the emotional difficulties of family life, Ruben gets into frequent fights at school. Mrs. Wolfe tries to keep the family afloat by working as a house cleaner. Meanwhile, their sister, Sarah, turns to alcohol to escape the family’s problems, inadvertently gaining a distorted and negative reputation at school. At the same time, Cameron attempts unsuccessfully to repress his family’s problems.
News gets around about Mr. Wolfe’s unemployment and the class bullies begin to relentlessly tease Ruben and Cameron. One day, a high school classmate taunts the brothers, insinuating that their sister sleeps around. Ruben beats him up with some classmates as witnesses. As news of the exciting fight quickly spreads throughout the school, the entrepreneurial Ruben is further incensed to keep fighting after learning that people throw money into boxing rings if they approve of a fighter’s courage. A few days later, Perry Cole shows up at their house. He tells them he is the organizer of an active underground boxing scene and offers the two brothers fifty dollars per fight if they join, plus any collected tips. The boys quickly decide to take the offer, believing it will help stabilize their family’s financial life and improve their spirits. At the same time, Cameron reflects that he and Ruben both have primal emotional reasons for joining the fight club.
As Cameron and Ruben participate in the boxing scene in the coming months, they begin to evolve, reacting in starkly different ways to the violent sport. Cameron withdraws further from social life, living in constant fear of some form of retribution for his actions. Ruben, meanwhile, grows a facade of toughness that often seems convincingly real. He becomes prodigious at fighting, gaining local notoriety. As the income flows in, they experience the pleasurable rush of being able to support their family. At the same time, however, it entangles them further into the violent mindset of the underground sport. Ruben and Cameron begin to clash, losing sight of their original financial impetus for joining, and perceiving their old selves as too boyish and naive.
The novel concludes with a change of heart after Cameron and Ruben are pitted against each other in the ring. After an intense match and many painful blows, they both collapse in exhaustion. The winner of the fight is too ambiguous for a judge to decide, and the match is declared over. It is then that Cameron and Ruben realize the importance of their cooperation and their shared compassion for their family. They resolve to quit the boxing scene, and their futures are left uncertain.
A kind of bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, Fighting Ruben Wolfe
adapts this narrative of a tumultuous adolescent life to portray the co-evolution of two brothers trying to solve a real problem in the life of their family, rather than a single individual railing against a seemingly abstract and confusing world. In doing so, Zusak highlights the necessity of cooperation, morals, and attitude in figuring out how to survive as a family in a complex and unforgiving social and economic world.