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Book Review–The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

I spent the first 3/4 of this novel cautiously enjoying it and being baffled by its designation as a  Newbery honor book this year, since the Newbery is an award for children’s literature.  I just couldn’t imagine reading this book myself as a child, and I can’t imagine my own ultrasensitive children reading it before they are older than the 10 & up age designation given by the publisher.

That is not to say that it is poorly written.  Actually, it is beautifully written, with nuances and prose patterns that elevate the story in places to the status of myth or legend .  And it is not all parts of this multi-faceted story that I found problematic or difficult–actually, it was only the part about Grandmother Mocassin, the shapeshifting snake whose own bitterness and unforgiveness have locked her in a pottery jar of a prison for 1000 years.  Well, that and the hatefilled Gar Face, who drowns one cat out of pure meanness, attemps to drown two more, and repeatedly brutalizes his own hunting dog. The main story, though, the one that occurs in the present, is one that is appealing and child-like.  It is the story of an old, worn out, crippled hunting dog, and a mama cat and her babies who find shelter and make an unlikely family in the Underneath with him.  The dog, Ranger, loves his cat family, and he goes to great lengths to save them from the fate that Gar Face designs for them.  It has a happy ending, though, like all good children’s literature should.   Appelt’s weaving together of two disparate stories is what made me really like this story in the end.   Once the ancient story was finally relegated to the past and the pace of the present story picked up, I could be comfortable with the wole thing and enjoy it.  (Don’t mind me, really–I’m kind of funny about some types of literature, myths and legends being one of them.)

Appelt’s prose is thoughtful, poignant, and just all-around lovely.  Here are a few of my favorite snippets:

It’s a fact that kittens are hard to manage.  And these two, growing sleek and nimble, were no different.  There is also that whole thing about curiosity.  Anyone who has ever known a cat knows that they are filled up with it.

Bones, fur, milk, curiosity.  That is what cats are made of. (71)

The calico cat looked hard at her beautiful baby, her boy kitten.  And right there, tucked beside him in the dark burlap bag, she loved him as hard as she could, loved him so much that her heart nearly burst.  “You are the son I dreamed of,” she told him.  “I never wanted any other son but you.”  She licked him on the top of his head, right on the crescent moon.  (76)

The last 1/4 of the book rivals my all-time favorite animal story, Where the Red Fern Grows, as a picture of animal devotion and selfless love.  I give this one my “highly recommended” designation, but with the caveat that it might be difficult for some sensitive children to read.

I read this book for the Semicolon Book Club.  It was the May selection, and I actually finished it in May, but I’m just now getting around to putting my thoughts together about it.  Sherry’s review is more thorough than mine, and she links some other reviews in it.  I also found this interview with Kathi Appelt (and you know how I love an author interview) in the comments on Sherry’s review.


7 Responses

  1. I’m with you. It sounds beautiful and meaningful in some important ways, but I just hate reading about cruelty.

  2. I hadn’t even heard about it. I imagine though that I”d have similar concerns so I thank you for your honesty in sharing.

  3. […] Underneath by Kathi Appelt was the Semicolon Book Club selection for May, and Amy at Hope Is the Word is on top of it. She’s right in pointing out that this book was somewhat controversial in its treatment of […]

  4. […] Kristin Cashore)18. LitMuse (Heartbreak River)19. Jen Robinson (The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate)20. Amy @ Hope Is the Word (The Underneath)21. Amy @ Hope Is the Word (Small Gifts in God’s Hands by Max Lucado)22. Amy @ Hope Is the […]

  5. I am obviously in the minority,but I hated this book. I thought the author could have more effectively told the story in about half the time it actually took her. There is such a thing as beating a point to death! I have read that some were moved to tears by this book. I was as well – by the fear that the audio version to which I was stuck listening would never end. Seriously, this book would have benefitted greatly by having an editor. I came away with the impression that the author had just gotten a new thesaurus and was determined to use every word in there in one book.

  6. I just needed one more chapter about a cozy home with lots of TLC to stop crying!

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