By Kathi Appelt
Illustrated by David Small
Atheneum (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
Ages 8 and up
On shelves now
I review lots of books. Oodles of caboodles of books. And a lot of the time my thoughts can basically be boiled down to very simple sentences. "Me like book. Book good." or conversely "Me no like book. Book bad." It takes a very special story to knock me out of this frame of mind. When you pick up a copy of The Underneath by Kathi Appelt and you read the words, "A novel like this only comes around every few decades," on the back cover you’re forgiven if you scoff a little. Uh-huh. Suuuuuure it does. But doggone it if it isn’t true. Appelt in her debut novel has somehow managed to write a book that I’ve been describing to people as (and this is true) Watership Down meets The Incredible Journey meets Holes meets The Mouse And His Child. If that doesn’t make any sense to you it is because you have never read a book quite like this. Bound to be one of those books that people either hate or love, I’m inclined to like it very very much. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t weird, man. Really freaky deaky weird.
"There is nothing lonelier than a cat who has been loved, at least for a while, and then abandoned on the side of the road." North of the Gulf of Mexico, west of the Sabine River that divides Texas and Louisiana, three hundred miles north of Houston in far East Texas a cat is left to fend for itself in a forest with her belly full of unborn kits. She is looking for somewhere safe to live, but instead she finds Ranger. Ranger is a hound, shot be accident years ago and chained ever since to the house of a man known only as Gar Face. Ranger warns the cat that this place is dangerous and that Gar Face will kill her if he finds her, but she refuses to leave. The two curl up under the house into the Underneath and there she gives birth to two kittens that she names Puck and Sabine. Unbeknownst to them Gar Face searches the nearby swamps for a massive alligator, hoping to kill it and earn the respect of the men he despises. And even further in the forest a bowl waits, containing a serpent known only as Grandmother Moccasin who remembers how she was trapped and contemplates her imminent escape. All storylines finally coincide in unpredictable, interesting ways.
I brought this book up with a fellow children’s librarian, the first I’d run into that had also read the story. When asked what she thought she said, "I liked it. But I couldn’t figure out who it was written for." This is more than a little understandable. The story is dark. Dark in tone and in content. Yet I think The Underneath will definitely have its fans and not just librarians and booksellers either. I’ve already heard from a couple sources about kids being read this book in class and being desperate to hear at least one more chapter. Not all children will dig it, of course. If you’ve a ten-year-old that can’t read Charlotte’s Web because they find Charlotte’s death too disturbing, boy oh boy is this NOT the book for them. Other kids though, the ones with thicker skins, they will find much to love in this story. It will usher them into maturity, whether they want to go there or not. And it will use cute furry animals to do it.
The sticking point with The Underneath is that anyone at any time in this book could die. Ranger could die. Puck could die. Puck’s mother could die. Gar-Face could die. Appelt does away with a major character fairly early in the story and because of that you lose any sense that everyone’s going to be okay. The author has ratcheted up the tension to the point where you have to keep reading if only because you have this insane sense that if you don’t you won’t be able to protect the characters you’re reading about. Does that make any sense?
But the darkness extends beyond the critters. I for one cannot think of a children’s novel that spends as much time as this one does in the head of its villain. For that matter, I’ve never met a villain this nasty that managed to have zero redeeming characteristics and still remain three-dimensional. Gar Face is a bad man, and normally I have a real problem with children’s book authors telling the audience, "This person is bad and there is nothing good about them and that’s how the world works." It’s not like we don’t see how the guy came to be bad. We see his entire life story from a nasty bird-poisoning kid to a nasty bird-shooting adult. So why didn’t I have a problem with the author rendering him in such stark black and white moral terms? I can’t account for it, except maybe to say that Appelt’s writing somehow manages to overcome the normal pits and fissures into which less talented authors fall.
I’ve read Kathi Appelt’s picture books, you know. In fact, I am particularly fond of her Bubba and Beau series, following the very low-key adventures of a baby (Bubba) and his hound dog puppy (Beau). Clearly she has a thing for hound dogs. One of the things I like about those books is that Appelt has a real ear for a Texan tongue. Midwestern gal that I am, I can’t think of a famous Texan children’s book author, though I know there are bound to be heaps of them out there. But if we can make Appelt our honorary author of the Lone Star State then I am all for it. We need more children’s books out there that take advantage of colloquialisms and distinctive turns of phrase. You’ll see a couple come out every year, but few rope you in completely. Now we’ve Appelt taking Texas and Ingrid Law’s Savvy handling Kansas. Things are looking up.
And her language. Oh, the language. Gripping story I can understand, but wrapping it in words like these cannot be easy. In the space of three sentences we see a gnarled tupelo tree and an old loblolly pine. We hear the wind in the pines and the smell of the water. The chapters are always short, often not much longer than a page, but it works in the context of the tale. And I loved the way her sentences wrap around themselves. "Ask a tree, and it will tell you about any number of traps. The steel traps of hungers, the steel jaws of gators, the vicious jaws of the water moccasins." Notice how that second sentence went from steel traps to steel jaws to vicious jaws. Beautiful.
Appelt uses repetition in such a way that the book deserves to be read aloud. "Respect. A word he had never had any truck with. Respect. It crawled down his back like a rat. He reached around as if to catch it and then held his empty hand in front of his hideous face. Respect. He wanted it." This repetition doesn’t just happen in sentences that repeat a single word or phrase over and over. Ideas are repeated too. Read the book closely and carefully and you’ll find that words you ascribe with families pop up again and again. The Alligator King calls Grandmother Moccasin "sister". Gar Face, searching in vain for the gator he wants to kill, calls him "brother". Grandmother Moccasin’s past mistakes are centered upon her family and what happened to them. And of course, the whole story revolves around an unexpected family consisting of a dog and some cats.
Questions that come up in the reading are answered as you come to them. Why does Gar Face continue to feed a creature that he thinks betrayed him many years ago? We learn it is because the dog acts as a reminder. "Do not trust a living soul. Do not." This narrative voice is not as intrusive as a "dear reader" narrator might be, but it does act as a kind of go-between for the reader. It tells you what to do, how to think, and what goes on in the head of someone like Gar Face. The villain is a rough crude man and could never be an eloquent speaker, so the narrator serves to speak for him and explain about his past. It puts us in the mind of Grandmother Moccasin and poor chained Ranger. The narrator will even ask questions about why the world is the way it is, as if the reader had the answer.
I compare this book to The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban in large part because of David Small. Mr. Small is fine with doing carefree picture books along the lines of Imogene’s Antlers or Once Upon a Banana but there’s a darkness to him and to his work that occasionally peeks through the surface. The newly reillustrated Hoban book featured Small’s illustrations, and they were dark moving images. In The Underneath Small goes even darker, his pictures never going for the obvious shot. These illustrations complement the action but Small seems to have taken a great deal of care not to distract the reader, or even create an image that the reader will look at with more interest than the text on the opposite page. He sometimes will miss a detail from the book (Hawk Man’s long black hair is conspicuously absent) but for the most part his images are dead on the money.
I’m fairly certain that there will be some objection to the fact that in the middle of the book and for a very long time nothing much happens. Characters are in their respective areas and it’s only until you reach the slam-bang last fifty pages or so that they begin to take action. Much of the space in-between concerns Grandmother Moccasin’s past mistakes, and that’s why I kept thinking of Holes as I read the book. The climax of the story hinges on Grandmother Moccasin’s family, such as it was, and if you don’t pay attention to the past then the ending of the book will strike you as unsatisfying. It may be hard for some people to invest themselves in the past when the present is so dire. Maybe that is why Appelt chose to include some magic. She didn’t have to. She didn’t need to. But because she did, she made Grandmother Moccasin’s memories just that much more interesting. It’s up to the reader to determine if it was worth it in the end.
Here is what I think the author is trying to say. This is just my own interpretation, mind you, so I could be completely off. But the book is basically telling us that there is evil in the world. It does bad things to good people, and often these people have very little recourse in their lives. There is also love in this world. Compared to evil, love does not look like much. It might just be a kitten licking a dog’s ears to make it feel better. But love can win and should win and when it does win then that’s the story worth telling. That’s the moment worth remembering. It is up to each person to do what they can for love and in doing so understand that while it isn’t always enough, sometimes it’s everything you need. This isn’t a pretty message or one that you can tie up with a little bow. It’s also not often found portrayed as well as it is here in The Underneath. Adults don’t always like children’s books to address the nature of evil, real evil, without coating it in sugar first. But as Lemony Snicket’s, A Series of Unfortunate Events taught us, kids are more resilient and intelligent than we give them credit for. They can take messages like this one, process them, and draw their own conclusions. This is a book that is not always pretty, and for that very reason a lot of people are going to hate it very much. I can only hope that enough other people read it through and take what it has to say to heart. Memorable, controversial, wonderful.
On shelves now.
Other Blog Reviews: Educating Alice and The Goddess of YA Literature
Weirdly Cheery Trailer: I kid you not. This is a very oddly whimsical book trailer. Not really how I saw the book myself.