Kathi Appelt. The Underneath. Atheneum Books, 2008.
2009 Newbery Honor Book
Disclaimer: I met the author last week at the Sheboygan Children’s Book Fest, which was where I purchased this book. Whether I’ve met the author in the past, or am familiar with his/her works, or whether I start a book with no prior knowledge, I always strive to be honest in my reviews, offering both positive feedback and constructive criticism.
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This is a haunting, complex novel by Kathi Appelt, set in the bayous of eastern Texas. It begins with an abandoned cat, a calico drawn by the blues-like howl of an old bloodhound, Ranger. Chained to the side of a tilting house, abused by a bitter, hard-drinking man called Gar-Face, Ranger suddenly finds relief in the calico’s company. Even better–she will soon have kittens.
But life is dangerous around the tilting house. A boy, once abused by his father, has grown into a cruel man who would use small animals for sport or bait. So Ranger and the calico must make sure the kittens stay Underneath, in the dark place below the tilting house. But, of course, kittens are curious, and one day, one breaks the rule…
The narrative voice in this novel is hypnotic, sometimes speaking directly to 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.” She travels back and forth in time, telling parallel stories a thousand years apart. She stirs together Greek and some Celtic mythology, a sprinkling of Indian and Egyptian mythology, along with the stories of the people who once lived in Far East Texas–the Caddo. “At some deep level,” she tell us, “we’re all of us connected.”
Words are powerful in this story, and Appelt shows that through her use of repetition, as well as through her focus on names and meanings. She names all of the local trees — blackjack, water oak, tupelo… She names all the snakes — copperhead, hognose, massasauga…. She tells of words that direct, that forbid, that seduce. And she tells us that words, along with our reactions to them, have a price.
Once in a while the repetition feels overdone, even slightly melodramatic, but the story is so riveting, and the voice so hypnotic overall, that I don’t really mind. The story is both simple and complex, and all characters are effectively developed. Even the “villain” has a backstory, so that I feel as much pity for him as disgust for his actions. To paraphrase the musicals Wicked and South Pacific, no one is born evil or hate-filled; they are taught, and sometimes we can overcome those teachings.
That’s why books like The Underneath are important for young adults.
I’m definitely looking forward to Keeper.