Thursday, August 14, 2008

Out of the Depths: The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

Kathi Appelt's first novel, The Underneath is a skillfully layered book which indeed goes underneath--to the primitive ebb and flow of nature and magic beneath the surface of the Texas-Louisiana bayou country where it is set, winding its way back and forth through millennia to tell a simple but primal tale as deep and dark and rich as the waters of Bayou Tartine. It is a story which at its core goes underneath to the hearts of its characters, touching the elemental loneliness which they all share.

Underneath a decaying, sagging old house in a clearing filled with rusted cans, broken glass, and the discarded skeletons of animals, a hound named Ranger lies beneath the structure, chained by his cruel owner, Gar Face. Barely human, without hope or love, existing on the barter of the skins of animals he takes from the swampland, Gar Face is himself a victim of his drunken father's hatred, a father who broke the boy's jaw and drove him away from civilization decades before. Ranger, too old and lame to hunt, is kept tied to the cabin as a watchdog and can only bay out his loneliness when his harsh master is away.

One morning his song awakens an abandoned calico cat, her belly full of kittens about to be born:

It wasn't the chirring of the mourning doves that woke the calico cat, or the uncertain sun peeking through the clouds, or even the rustling of a nearby squirrel. No, it was the baying of a nearby hound. She had never heard a song like it, all blue in its shape, blue and tender, slipping through the branches, gliding on the morning air. She felt the ache of it.

The calico follows the dog's lament to his hideout underneath the crumbling house, and there she and the lonely dog find solace in each other's company. And when the kittens, Sabine and Puck, are born, Ranger's love for the young ones is complete The dog and the three cats share what they have, a dark shelter in the underneath, Gar Face's occasional handfuls of dog food, and the mother cat's prey, hunted furtively while the man is away,--insects, lizards, and sometimes a mouse or rat. But the wise old dog also shares his knowledge of the master's wicked ways:

Do not leave the safety of the Underneath. Do not, under any circumstances, go out into the Open. DO NOT get in front of Gar Face and his gun.

But kittens are born to seek, and one day Puck forgets the rules in the joy of the sun-filled Open, and he and his mother, who rushes out to save him, are captured by Gar Face, tied in a burlap bag and gleefully thrown in the bayou to drown. Puck alone survives, learning to live on his own but always hopeful that he will hear Ranger's lament and find his way back to the two he loves.

Into this simple story of castaway animals Appelt weaves the story of two other creatures, magical creatures also living underneath--King Alligator, a thousand-year-old monster of incredible size whom Gar Face dreams of taking as a trophy that will win him the approval of humans which his deformed face has denied him, and Grandmother Moccasin, a shape-shifting lamia whose bitter loneliness at the loss of her daughter to a shape-shifting bird man causes her to be buried in a pottery jar beneath a giant lob-lolly pine. Trapped in her snake's skin and the hatred she cannot shed, she waits for an event which will bring her earthenware prison to the surface again and free her to vent her revenge.

Like the waters of Little Sorrowful Creek which wind through these woods, Appelt takes her time building the backstory of these characters, flowing back and forth through centuries as the reader comes to understand and care for them all, even Gar Face, whose final failure to find either hope or love brings the suspenseful story to a surprising and satisfying conclusion. Drawing upon the legends of the Caddo people who once lived in the bayou country, Appelt creates a world of magical realism, helping the reader see the natural world as our ancestors must have once seen it, at once physically real and yet inhabited by deep, unseen beings that are also part of the creation.

Although David Small's cover and incidental illustrations may suggest a touching and humorous story of unlikely friends, akin to Appelt's wonderfully warm and wise Bubba and Beaustories, The Underneath is a darkly complex and moving novel on a par with Shiloh or A Wrinkle in Time in its handling of the struggle between good and evil, love and hate, which runs deep to the heart of life itself. The artfully and tautly told central plotline of Ranger's and the kittens' struggle for survival will hold readers' attention from start to finish, but for thoughtful middle readers this is a once-in-a-lifetime read which will reveal much of what lies underneath the surface of life.

This novel will be one to watch at award time.

Labels: , ,


  • I dunno. Sounds like one of the nothing-goes-well, pointless-evil-prevails, I'll-just-go-slit-my-wrists-now books we were forced to read in jr. high and early high school, like The Bridge to Terebithia and The Chocolate War... though the presence of a satisfying conclusion would, indeed, be a surprising change for such things.

    By Blogger Peregrine John, at 1:20 PM  

  • Dear PJ,

    I too have read this book. The whole point of it is that evil does not prevail. What in this review gave you the idea that "pointless-evil-prevails" is the theme of the novel?

    The book is no POLLYANNA, but normal people will be uplifted, not slitting their wrists at the end.

    The bad guy gets himself killed off. Would that be a satisfying conclusion for you? If so, you are cleared to read the book! (Whammo! The Justice League triumphs again!)

    Sounds like you haven't read much since your apparently traumatic tweenerhood.

    P.S. It's NOT the KITTEN who wastes the bad guy.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:07 PM  

  • Great review! Read an interview with Kathi at my wife's blog:

    By Blogger Greg Leitich Smith, at 10:33 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home