The Underneath

by Kathi Appelt and David Small

On its surface, this is a novel about an alligator, a snake, a mangy hound dog, and... read more

On its surface, this is a novel about an alligator, a snake, a mangy hound dog, and a couple of cats. But look underneath and there’s something much deeper in Kathi Appelt’s first novel, set in Louisiana bayou country. Appelt’s lyrical story weaves two narrative strands. One, set in the present day, involves Ranger, an old hound who has been chained for ages to the side of a ramshackle house by his owner, Gar Face. Ranger’s baying has attracted a lonely calico cat that joins him in The Underneath, the small space beneath the front porch that affords them protection from Gar Face’s cruelty. The cat, her two kittens, and Ranger become a family. The second strand tells how an ancient snake came to be trapped in a jar beneath a centuries-old tree in the bayou. Going back a thousand years, it reveals Grandmother Moccasin’s sense of betrayal and desire for revenge after her daughter, Night Song, grew up and left her, choosing to transform into a human woman when she fell in love with a man. In short chapters that move back in forth in time and between various points of view, the two narratives are tied together by a strong sense of place and by the creatures who live there, including the Alligator King who lies in wait beneath the water. Appelt’s prose is exquisite and begs to be read aloud. But this is not a sweet bedtime story for small children. Although it is beautifully written and features cute, furry critters, it is ultimately a novel that wells up from the murky depths of muddy backwaters where one is either predator or prey, and where love and redemption are sometimes fleeting, slippery like a snake’s shimmering skin, and ultimately transformative. (Ages 9–14)

© Cooperative Children's Book Center, Univ. of Wisconsin - Madison, 2009

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