"Me like book. When you pick up a copy of The Underneath by Kathi Appelt and you read the words, "A novel like this only comes around every few decades," on the back cover you're forgiven if you scoff a little. Appelt in her debut novel has somehow managed to write a book that I've been describing to people as (and this is true) Watership Down meets The Incredible Journey meets Holes meets The Mouse And His Child. If that doesn't make any sense to you it is because you have never read a book quite like this. Bound to be one of those books that people either hate or love, I'm inclined to like it very very much. Ranger is a hound, shot be accident years ago and chained ever since to the house of a man known only as Gar Face. I brought this book up with a fellow children's librarian, the first I'd run into that had also read the story. I've already heard from a couple sources about kids being read this book in class and being desperate to hear at least one more chapter. Gar Face is a bad man, and normally I have a real problem with children's book authors telling the audience, "This person is bad and there is nothing good about them and that's how the world works." It's not like we don't see how the guy came to be bad. I've read Kathi Appelt's picture books, you know. One of the things I like about those books is that Appelt has a real ear for a Texan tongue. Midwestern gal that I am, I can't think of a famous Texan children's book author, though I know there are bound to be heaps of them out there. Gripping story I can understand, but wrapping it in words like these cannot be easy. Appelt uses repetition in such a way that the book deserves to be read aloud. Read the book closely and carefully and you'll find that words you ascribe with families pop up again and again. Mr. Small is fine with doing carefree picture books along the lines of Imogene's Antlers or Once Upon a Banana but there's a darkness to him and to his work that occasionally peeks through the surface. The newly reillustrated Hoban book featured Small's illustrations, and they were dark moving images. Much of the space in-between concerns Grandmother Moccasin's past mistakes, and that's why I kept thinking of Holes as I read the book. The climax of the story hinges on Grandmother Moccasin's family, such as it was, and if you don't pay attention to the past then the ending of the book will strike you as unsatisfying. Compared to evil, love does not look like much. But love can win and should win and when it does win then that's the story worth telling. Adults don't always like children's books to address the nature of evil, real evil, without coating it in sugar first.
Perhaps after reading the stunning above-quoted sentence, many have just thought, "Yep, here's a winner!" and thrown the book to the side. Kathi Appelt's overly florid prose (think Hemingway geared toward kids) consists of annoying and sophomoric methods. We are also treated to repetitive stories about the Grandmother, the clay jar, the alligator, Gar Face... Multiple chapters are just reiterations of "action" that has already taken place. 108 "Saw him yelp and cry and howl until he had nothing left, until his neck was raw and bleeding where the chain dug into the skin, rubbed the fur away and left it bleeding, raw, sore, until he had no voice at all, until he didn't utter a single sound." (This also reinforces #1 - you've already mentioned he had no voice, which is the exact same thing as not uttering a single sound) Virginia Woolf writes excellent run-on sentences. But she doesn't write for children. Oh, and like most everything else in this 320 page snoozefest, it adds nothing to the story. 4. Character Development Concealed As Violence When Gar Face beats the living hell out of his dog, the violence is jarring... 5. Tone Shifting From the first chapter, The Underneath meanders with a foreboding and funereal tone. And when Appelt begins mashing together multiple points-of-view in a single paragraph - Holy Creative Writing No-No 101!
Didn't want too much hype for it to live up to, hadn't read a single plot summary, didn't look at the back of the book or the inside flap of the jacket. Cats, trees, dogs, ugh. Enough with the constant mini-chapters alluding to the looming danger of grandmother snake and king alligator--either reveal them with some actual action or shut the @#%& up about them already. Before the night fell tense shift!!!:, he would eat a giant bullfrog, a wounded mink, and several fish. Subject: Gotta Figure Out Why People Are Saying Things Like "Best Book in a Decade" So please don't take this as an attack on your reading tastes for enjoying it. So when the writing and grammar in a book bother me, I figure something's gotta be up. Pg. 83: The trees remember them. Ask the trees, and they will take you back a thousand years. Pg. 3: Trees are the keeper of stories. . So when you told me, The trees remember them, I wasn't so sure about it, wasn't that inclined to believe you. Patronizing, repetitive, circular, stagnant, awful writing. Pg. 85: What do you call someone who throws a mother cat and her kitten into a creek, who steals them from the hound who loves them, a hound twisting at his chain wailing, who never even looks back, what do you call someone like that? The trees have a word: evil. I think if you just let your story speak for itself, let me focus on the horror of his actions without all this stupid commentary, I'd get that. I know throwing cats in the river is evil whether the trees have a word for it or not. Shut the @$#& up and tell the story already. Subject: Another Meal, Another Ridiculous Character Like the trees themselves, he knew the songs of wrens and warblers, the Carolina parakeets, the whip-poor-wills and crows and red-cockaded woodpeckers, for wasn't he one of their kind? The author has it all in his or her head, but they don't waste time telling the stories that aren't this story. You learn about them through their actions as they fit into the story with no "voice-over" necessary. This book is all voice-over. Not that her method of telling the story makes any sense. But now one is dead, two mainly dropped out of the narrative, and one stagnating with very short chapters that aren't going anywhere, and instead we get the story (the one from a thousand years ago, the one that the trees remember, oh yes they do, those trees remember it, the maple and ash and loblolly pine and aspen and oak and rattler and warbler and oh yes the trees remember you just have to ask because they have long memories and time is different for them and they live millions of years and collect stories and this was just yesterday for them and the trees) of snake girl and bird boy and mean old granny and the glittery little one. Just constant cutesy stuff that distracts from the story and makes me want to puke. You're interrupting your own story with some stupid interjection that makes no sense? . It might have worked the first time you did something like this with Puck 70 pages ago. I still thought it was bad writing and it pulled me out of my reading experience and into analytical mode, but I could appreciate the novelty of it.
While I definitely enjoyed sad animal stories as a child, now, with the occasional exception, I avoid them. Until someone told me it reminded her of Russell Hobans The Mouse and his Child which happens to be one of my favorite books. It is an adventure, a story of myth and magic, of sadness, of family and is very beautifully done indeed. While I can see why someone might compare it to The Mouse and his Child because of the journey aspect of the story, the setting, and the sentiment within (and the illustrations as Small also did an edition of the Hoban book), it seems extremely different to me. Another book this reminded me of was Kate DiCamillos The Tale of Despereaux. It takes place in a deep Southern swamp a place full of sentient trees, of intelligent animals, of shapeshifting creatures, a place of misery and mystery, a place of magic and myth. There is the bad man, an abused dog, a calico cat and her twin kittens.
The story is a simple one-- a calico cat, abandoned in the woods when she is pregnant, discovers the shack of a violent, broken man, known as Gar Face, who is so evil he shot his own dog. Alongside the tale of the kittens and Gar Face, there is another story, an ancient one, of the woods and the history of sorrow and love that have marked that place for centuries.
(I hate animal suffering stories and this one tops them all!) On the other hand, the recurring phrases and the listing of different trees, birds, other creatures get to be so annoying that I wanted to fling the book away and say, "ENOUGH! Let's not fool little children and their parents into thinking this is a lovely animal buddies story, please?
I gave this award winning book to my daughter a few years ago when she still found reading more of a chore than a joy. I thought, here's a warm fuzzy story about a dog and a cat who become friends; it's an award winner; it must be good; she'll love it.
While I recognize that the writing is compelling and builds a great deal of suspense, I was just annoyed throughout the book. It took me a long time to read for several reasons: 1) I have a tendency to take a break from reading a book when a chapter ends.
It's a dark story about an abused dog, an abandoned cat, and her kittens who come together to try to forge a life under the porch of a creepy, damaged man who enjoys killing things. Oh, I woke up on this bayou, Got a chain around my heart.
I have never read a book where the sorrows of life, the ugliness is expressed in such a way that just when it is about to become too much, Kathi interrupts it with something of great beauty, softens the scene with something inherently gentle, kind and lovely. So I can't tell you all the proper, educated things about this book and the craft of writing if you put it to that test.