Monday, September 15, 2008

Review of The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

Look at the cover of this book. Do you see those sweet kittens cuddled against the saggy jowls of a loyal old hound? Do you? If you think this might be an adorable, frothy story of animals facing slight and perhaps even comedic danger, do not open this book.

Do not!

But, on the other hand, if you are ready for an intense, moving, and stomach-clenching tale of heartbreak, survival, and love, then dive right in.

By now, The Underneath by Kathi Appelt has been reviewed all over the place, so most folks are familiar with the story. An abandoned pregnant cat (see? The sadness has already started) finds her way through the swamp to the home of Ranger, a hound dog who (more grimness here) remains eternally chained up by his quite hideous master Gar Face, who makes his living by selling the skins of just about any animal he can shoot or trap.

The mama cat takes to Ranger right away, and he to her. She has her kittens under the house, which provides a safe haven for them – until Gar Face discovers them one day. Nastiness ensues, and death. The boy kitten, Puck, ends up on the far side of the river, with an overwhelming desire and need to get back to Ranger and what remains of his family.

Meanwhile, there is a more mystical tale going on. A shape-shifting snake spirit called Grandmother Moccasin, older than time itself, has been trapped in a jar beneath the roots of an ancient tree for the past 1000 years. 1000 years ago, she rediscovered love in the form of a much-beloved daughter – but then lost her when the daughter fell in love and assumed her human form. Grandmother Moccasin reacted badly – and tragedy resulted. She has been seething for 1000 years, and wants her revenge.

Grandmother Moccasin’s tale is told in a slow and stately manner, as befits an ancient spirit to whom time is nothing, while Ranger and the cats are allowed no such luxury – their story is one of heart-pounding suspense punctuated by both terrifying swoops of action and piercing sweetness. Naturally, all the stories arrive at one place in one moment in time in an almost unbearable climax – and by then, the reader is a limp and soggy wad of nerves. But a happy wad of nerves! Some characters are redeemed, justice prevails, and the swamp subsides into business as usual.

The ancient 100-foot-long Alligator King, who has seen all and mostly keeps his thoughts to himself, is the most mysterious character of all. Only once do we get a sense of his moral character (or that he even has one), when he feels compelled to give a piece of advice to his old friend Grandmother Moccasin. She doesn’t heed it, of course. Meanwhile, the Alligator King lives, breathes, swims, and eats – and plays his own crucial role.

The omniscient narrator’s voice, with its tendency to lecture, exhort, and warn the reader (“Do not go into that land between the Bayou Tartine and its little sister, Petite Tartine. Do not step into that shivery place. Do not let it gobble you up. Stay away from the Tartine sisters.”) jarred me at first, but then the intimate feeling of being directly addressed, as well as the lulling, mythical repetition of various words and phrases, began working its magic on me. I’m curious to know how children will react to this narrative voice, and to see if the find Grandmother Moccasin’s story, which is slower and more distant, compelling or boring.
Drawings by David Small manage to be winsome and moving without succumbing to unsuitable adorableness.

This is one of the most powerful and skillfully told books for children that I’ve read all year, and it is certainly a strong Newbery contender. Read this book.

Read it.

Read it now!

1 comment:

  1. You have captured Appelt's voice perfectly in your review. Brava, Eva.