48 pages 1 hour read

Neal Shusterman


Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 1999

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Summary and Study Guide


Downsiders (1999) is a YA fantasy stand-alone novel written by Neal Shusterman. Set in a fantastical version of New York City, it follows two teenagers from different worlds as they navigate their shifting identities. Shusterman has published many other stand-alone novels for young readers, such as Full Tilt (2003), and series, such as the Arc of a Scythe books (2016).

This guide is based on the 2001 Aladdin Paperbacks edition.

Content Warning: Downsiders features suicidal ideation and some insensitive terms.

Plot Summary

The Downsiders are a society of humans who live beneath New York City, and they call the people who live above them Topsiders. Topsiders don’t know about Downsiders, but Downsiders know about Topsiders, and they don’t like them.

Talon Angler, Railborn Skinner, and Gutta are three 14-year-old Downsiders performing their Catching rotation when they come upon a Topsider who almost dies by suicide. Talon considers beheading him but lets him live when he renounces the Topside. Deviating from Downside protocols, Talon tells him how to get to the Downside.

Lindsay Matthias is a Topside teenager. Her mom is off to Africa to study white rhinos, so 14-year-old Lindsay must move from Texas to New York City, where her dad lives. Her dad, Mark Matthias, is a passionate engineer, and he’s building an aqueduct that will supply New Yorkers with drinking water for the next 500 years. Mark isn’t rich, but he has connections, so he owns two adjacent brownstones, and he’s combining them. The construction puts a dark hole in the hallway outside Lindsay’s bedroom.

Living with Mark and Lindsay is Todd, the son of Mark’s former girlfriend. Lindsay loathes Todd, and he antagonizes her. On a Friday night, she reads H. G. Wells’s science fiction novel The Time Machine (1895), and he grabs it from her and throws it down the dark hole in the hallway. Lindsay thinks she sees someone in the hole, but she’s unsure.

Talon’s little sister is sick, so he goes to Champ for help. Neither a Topsider nor a Downsider, Champ lives in an empty swimming pool in an abandoned municipal building near FDR Drive. Champ writes Talon a list of antibiotics that might help his sister.

With Mark at a New Year’s Eve gala, Todd throws a house party. Unimpressed, Lindsay goes to her room and meets an intruder, Talon. Having taken a self-defense class, Lindsay neutralizes him and uses her pepper spray. Todd and other party guests check out the commotion, and Todd ties Talon to Lindsay’s bedpost and hits him. Someone calls the cops. Todd and the others leave, and Talon shows Lindsay the list of antibiotics and explains his predicament. Lindsay retrieves medicine from Todd’s medicine chest and frees Talon before the cops arrive. Talon leaves behind a sock.

Lindsay searches the subways for Talon, and Talon stalks the High Perimeter in hopes of finding Lindsay. Railborn trails Talon, and they fight. He thinks Talon is a “freak” for showing interest in the Topside, but the Topside captivates Talon.

One day Talon pulls Lindsay into a storm drain and gives her back her copy of The Time Machine, which he found in the hole. She tries to give him back the sock, but he won’t accept it—the sock is payment in his world. As most Downsiders are at market day, Talon gives Lindsay a tour of the Downside, and she is dazzled by the sumptuous spaces.

When Downsiders come back after market day, Talon and Lindsay hide in the terrifying sewer Bot, where cows almost run them over. The pair escape and go to Champ’s space. Lindsay doesn’t return home until 3:00 am, and her dad is upset. From now on, he says, Todd has to accompany her everywhere.

Concerned about his friend and hoping to win Gutta’s heart, Railborn tells the Wise Advisors (the Downside’s corrupt, self-serving governing council) about Talon and Lindsay. Railborn wants them to punish Talon, but he doesn’t want them to kill him. The Wise Advisors have other ideas. Hoping to make an example of Talon, they order his execution. With the help of a Topside woman, Talon beats death and emerges at Coney Island. Intoxicated by the Topside, Talon visits Lindsay. He renounces the norms and rules of the Downside, and they kiss.

Anxious to complete the aqueduct, Mark pushes people too hard, and a huge dump truck crashes into Brass Junction, the Downside venue for weddings and naming ceremonies. Topsiders are captivated by their discovery of the secret world. Watching the developments on Lindsay’s TV, Talon feels horrible. The Fates tested him, and he failed. Now, the Fates will ruin the Downside. Talon realigns himself with the Downside and ends his relationship with Lindsay. They can’t be together, because they’re from incompatible worlds.

With war on the horizon, the Wise Advisors want a powerful leader, a “Most-Beloved,” whom they can control. Their choice is Railborn. To punish the Topsiders for their “incursion,” Railborn orders for gas, electricity, and water to be cut off, and they clog Topside sewers.

The New Yorkers party in response to the outages, and Lindsay discovers the truth about Downsiders: They’re the product of Alfred Ely Beach, who created New York City’s first subway in secret. In Shusterman’s story, Beach also created the Downside after New York City officials thwarted his subway system.

Talon returns to the Downside, shocking Downsiders, who thought he was dead. Railborn sentences him to the Chamber of Soft Walls, a punitive psychiatric hospital, but Lindsay manages to sneak in and show him the truth about his world. A sympathetic guard lets him out, and he tries to enter the Place of First Runes. The guards tell him only a Most-Beloved can go in, but Talon realizes he is destined to be Most-Beloved, so he enters and accepts his fate. In the Place of First Runes, he spots Beach’s grave, and he talks to Beach’s spirit, explaining why he’ll keep the truth from other Downsiders: They need their mythology to flourish as a society.

As the new Most-Beloved, Talon decides they’ll scare Topsiders away by burning the Downside. Topsiders would wreck the Downside anyway, and Talon thinks Downsiders should control their destiny. The fire obliterates half of the Downside, but no one dies. Talon sees Lindsay one more time and tells her that he plans to move displaced Downsiders into abandoned skyscrapers in the Topside. They will make themselves known to Topsiders when they’re ready. He suggests that one day he and Lindsay will meet again.