Appelt, Kathi. 2008. The underneath. New York: Atheneum.
Most simply put, The Underneath is the story of a faithful hound dog, Ranger; his master, the cruel and possibly unredeemable Gar Face; and a small calico cat and her two kittens, Puck and Sabine. The story is set in the swamps, woods, and bayous in the wilderness somewhere between Louisiana and Texas. But that is the only thing simple about this haunting, suspenseful, mystical and poetic tale.
Woven into the story of Ranger, Gar Face, and the cats, are the magical stories of Grandmother Moccasin, a monstrous and venomous snake; the Alligator King, more than 100 feet long and a thousand years old; the shape-shifters, Night Song and Hawk Man, and the loblolly pine, who watches and remembers and sometimes intervenes in the fates of mammals, reptiles, and shape-shifters.
The underneath refers to the porch under which Ranger and the cats seek protection, but Grandmother is also underneath, trapped for a thousand years under the loblolly pine in an earthenware pot; and so too, is the Alligator King underneath, as he waits in the depths of the bayou, the Petite Gateaux, for the man he knows will hunt him.
“Do not go into that land between the Bayou Gateaux and its little sister, Petite Gateaux. Do not step into that shivery place. Do not let it gobble you up. Stay away from the Gateaux sisters.”
The story spans more than a thousand years and chapters alternate between the stories of man, animal, and reptile.
“A thousand years later…
Here is another listener.
Puck, wet and cold,
listening for his mama,
listening for his sister,
listening for his old hound, Ranger,
listening to the creek running by.
All he heard was loss.
Loss. A small, hissing word. A word that simmers into nothing. Beneath the old pine, Grandmother stewed inside her jar. Loss engulfed her as it had a million times before in this dark space. Lossssss! She whispered.
A word that scrapes against the skin.”
Each short chapter is written in similar fashion, a poetic style with recurring themes – loss, love, promises, and the price to be paid for one’s actions. Words are repeated as well,
“Do not trust a living soul. Do not.”
This is a book like none other that I have read and there is much “buzz” about it in the librarian community. I applaud Kathi Appelt’s bold foray from picture books into juvenile fiction, however, I am not entirely sure that this book will connect with young readers, particularly the stated target audience of grades 3-7. In 311 pages (I read the Advance Reader Copy, the actual final copy may have a slightly different number), there are only about twenty lines of dialogue. The Underneath is suspenseful, in that the reader will want to discover the fate of the protagonists and how their stories will intertwine across the ages, but I am not convinced that young readers will persevere through Appelt’s poetic prose. I confess that having received and Advance Reader Copy back in June, I was not initially interested enough to finish this book. I set it aside and only picked it up again because of the keen interest surrounding it. I may be wrong, but I predict that adults will love it, and children’s reviews will be mixed, at best. Time will tell.