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The Underneath (2008)

por Kathi Appelt

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1,56812511,695 (3.94)88
An old hound that has been chained up at his hateful owner's run-down shack, and two kittens born underneath the house, endure separation, danger, and many other tribulations in their quest to be reunited and free.
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Two parallel stories set in the swamps of eastern Texas meet. One story begins 1,000 years before the other when the daughter of Grandmother Moccasin, a shape-shifter, falls in love with a human and gives up her serpent form. Grandmother’s jealousy over her daughter’s happiness leads to her daughter’s death. Hawk Man, the daughter’s husband, imprisons Grandmother in a jar and buries the jar under a loblolly pine tree. In the present day story, a calico cat's owners abandon it by the roadside. The lonely baying song of an old hound dog brings her to a tilted house that has only known cruelty and sorrow, but there she bears her kittens and finds love. The dog, the cat, and the kittens live under the house's porch- in the "holy underneath." The only dark spot in their lives in Gar Face, an angry man who kills and skins animals to buy the alcohol that keeps him alive. Gar-Face wages an age-old battle with the ancient swamp alligator. Ranger, the hound dog, warns the cat that Gar-Face will use the kittens as bait if he catches them. Heedless of the danger, the kitten Puck can’t resist the warm sunshine of Gar-Face’s broken yard. One day, Gar-Face catches him and his mother when she tries to defend her kitten. The cruel man throws them in the river. Puck survives and finds refuge in the roots of a loblolly pine tree where Grandmother Moccasin has been imprisoned in her jar for over 1,000 years. When fate frees her, the snake chooses to help the innocent animals imprisoned by Gar Face.
©2024 Kathy Maxwell at https://bookskidslike.com ( )
  kathymariemax | Feb 5, 2024 |
Kathi Appelt has this style of writing where she repeats the same phrases over and over, almost like a chant or a theme in classical music. It can come off beautifully, but at times I found it super annoying. (Her newest, [b:Keeper|6609700|Keeper |Kathi Appelt|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1347375594s/6609700.jpg|6803667], is written similarly.)

The Underneath was adored by critics, so I expected to like it. But I didn't really buy into it. I kept having this imaginary conversation with the author:

Me: Kathi, please stop repeating yourself and tell the dang story!
KA: But I love the goldy sun and the Petite Tartine and sssssister!
Me: Girl, you love repeating your favorite phrases too much. Try some new ones. Like maybe phrases that move the story forward.
KA: But, I wrote a pretty good ending eventually. Loblolly pine! Long lists of different kinds of snakes! Long list of different kinds of trees! Stupid dog!
Me: Sigh.
KA: Do not provoke me. DO NOT.

So I'm not a big fan of Ms. Appelt's novels, though I think she can craft a nice turn of phrase. Maybe she'd be better off writing poetry or short stories. ( )
  LibrarianDest | Jan 3, 2024 |
Dark bayou tale with a menacing gar-face man, a beaten blues singing hound, and twin kittens in peril. I would have loved this as a kid, but also had nightmares. ( )
  jennifergeran | Dec 23, 2023 |
The Underneath is a middle school fantasy novel that tells two different stories simultaneously that eventually converge into one cohesive whole. In the present, Mama the calico cat is pregnant when she’s abandoned by the side of the road in the east Texas bayou. All alone, she hears the plaintive baying of a hound that speaks to her, so she follows his voice to a tumble-down shack in the middle of nowhere. She befriends the poor, old hound named Ranger, who has been chained to the porch for a long time. He urges her to stay in The Underneath, the space under the house where they’ll be safe from Gar Face, the mean man who lives there and who will no doubt try to use the sweet cat as alligator bait if he finds her. There Mama gives birth to two kittens, Sabine and Puck, which she and Ranger care for, telling them to always stay in The Underneath. But as Puck gets older, his curiosity gets the best of him, and one day he leaves the safety of The Underneath with disastrous consequences that leave him separated from his family and fighting for survival as he struggles to keep a promise he made to Mama.

Alongside the story of the dog and three cats is another narrative that takes place a thousand years ago in the same area, told in the style of a Native American myth from the perspective of the ancient trees that see all. It tells the story of Grandmother Moccasin, who is a lamia, half-snake, half-human. She once took on her human form and fell in love with a human man who betrayed her, so she retook her snake form and can never become human again, for once an enchanted creature such as this returns to their animal form, that’s how they’ll stay for eternity. She wandered the bayou with her only friend being an enormous hundred-foot-long alligator. She was lonely for a long time until she crossed paths with another young lamia, Night Song, who became her adopted daughter. But when Night Song grew up, she fell in love with Hawk Man, and the two of them took on their human forms to be together, leaving Grandmother feeling once again betrayed. From then on, she lived in anger and resentment until a selfish and fateful decision led to terrible consequences that ended with Grandmother being imprisoned in a clay jar for the next thousand years. In the present, she’s still alive in that jar buried deep beneath the roots of an old loblolly pine that sits on the banks of the Little Sorrowful creek, and in the nearby bayou, King Alligator still lives, too, presenting a temptation to Gar Face, who views him as the ultimate prize. The story of these animals and magical creatures eventually weave together in surprising ways.

The Underneath is aimed at middle-school readers with the back of the book stating for ages 10 and up. I definitely think it would be best suited to this age group. While younger kids might be tempted by the picture of the sad hound dog and cute kittens on the cover, it does cover some challenging themes that they might have difficulty processing. Gar Face is a miserable excuse for a human being, but he didn’t become as mean as he is in a vacuum. There’s a flashback scene where he’s abused by his father, which leads to him running away and ending up in the swamp where he now lives. Untreated injuries from the abuse is what caused his face to become deformed and him to be known by the nickname Gar Face. He’s also implied to be an alcoholic, drinking heavily and frequently due to his unhappiness. Grandmother Moccasin is angry for different reasons, and she allows her bitterness to fester until she doesn’t tell her daughter the truth about something, leading to irrevocable consequences. However, she is redeemed in the end, and I think her earlier actions could be used as an object lesson for kids about the dangers of lying and selfishness. Three characters die, one out of selflessness, one of a broken heart, and one out of greed. Death can be a difficult topic for kids, but I think it can be helpful to process it through the safe lens of a story. The reasons that lead to each character’s death could be used as talking points as well.

The issue that might be the most difficult, though, is the animal abuse and neglect that occurs throughout the story. Gar Face seems to only view animals as commodities or prizes, and even a pet, once it’s outlived its usefulness, is no longer important to him. Poor Ranger has been chained to the house for a long time with an untreated injury, he often isn’t fed properly, and later in the story he’s further abused for daring to defend his only friend. Each of the cats ends up suffering in various ways because of Gar Face’s actions, too. I don’t want to make the story sound too bad or scary, though, because the nature of it allows other characters to step up and show goodness, and it has a positive ending. Most middle-schoolers could probably handle the material. I’d just say know your child’s sensitivity level before allowing them to read it, and that it might best be read with parent or educator guidance. There’s even a helpful reading guide at the back with discussion questions and suggested activities.

I’d have to say that The Underneath didn’t end up being quite what I expected. The cover image and the book blurb make it seem like the story is all about Ranger and the kitties, perhaps something akin to The Incredible Journey, so the whole storyline about Grandmother Moccasin, Night Song, and the other enchanted creature characters was a bit of a surprise. I enjoyed each part of the narrative individually, but at first, I wasn’t entirely sure what they had to do with one another. However, I can say that they do eventually merge in an interesting way. The book was a Newberry Honor Book and a National Book Award finalist, and I can see why. The writing itself is quite beautiful and has a lyrical quality to it that almost made it the equivalent of literary fiction for children. Because of this, the style may not grab some kids, and reluctant readers may find it to be a harder read. Although there is adventure within the story, it’s rather slow-paced, but it still held my attention and probably would appeal to a certain subset of kids who are more literary-minded readers.

I already outlined some of the possible detractors, but there are many important and thought-provoking themes as well that could have a positive impact on kids, too, if properly explored. There’s the concept of what it means to be a family and how some families are those of our choosing rather than biology. Ranger and the cats make a very odd family, but a family they are, and a very compelling one, at that. Their love for one another is sweet, pure, and unmistakable. In fact, the power of love—and hate—and how these emotions can affect lives for good or ill is palpable throughout. There’s also the idea that promises shouldn’t be made lightly, and that once made, one should do everything in their power to follow through with it, even if it’s challenging. There are additional positive themes of determination, selflessness, empathy, kindness, and sharing even if you have little. I think that sometimes it takes seeing the struggle and how bad the world can be to really see the good in it, and for this reason, I think the story could have great value to kids. I would recommend it to middle-schoolers and up, even adults like myself, who would be interested in an accessible story that has deeper meaning and a lovely writing style. ( )
  mom2lnb | Jun 17, 2023 |
Very repetitive & sad. ( )
  drmom62 | Apr 21, 2023 |
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Kathi Appeltautor principaltodas as ediçõescalculado
Small, DavidIlustradorautor principalalgumas ediçõesconfirmado
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For Greg and Cynthia, because there is love and then there are cats, and aren't the two the same

—K.A.
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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.
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"For cats, a hound is a natural enemy"
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An old hound that has been chained up at his hateful owner's run-down shack, and two kittens born underneath the house, endure separation, danger, and many other tribulations in their quest to be reunited and free.

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