Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Underneath

Appelt, Kathi. 2008. The Underneath.

The Underneath is a novel that I would have avoided (at all costs) as a kid. I was a wimp. Big-time. Seeing the dog and two kittens on the cover? That would have made me suspicious or wary from the get go. Reading that it is for folks who love, "Sounder, Shiloh, and The Yearling" would have sealed the deal. I wouldn't have gone near this one. No way. No how.

As an adult, however, how can I help but fall in love with The Underneath? It's beautiful. It's simply beautiful. Like a love letter to the English language. Appelt's poetic style suits this prose novel achingly well. (Appelt has written several poetry books, a short story collection, and more than a few picture books. I've had the pleasure of meeting her as well and have quite a few autographed copies.) Appelt's storytelling is powerful, effective, and oh-so-magically spellbinding.

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. A small calico cat. Her family, the one she lived with, has left her in this old and forgotten forest, this forest where the rain is soaking into her soft fur. (1)

The Underneath is about friendship, about love, about hate, about sacrifice, about revenge, about death, about life in all its shades and colors. It's bittersweet but beautiful. It's sorrows and joys are pure and heartfelt.

For cats, a hound is a natural enemy. This is the order of things. Yet how could the calico cat be afraid of a hound who sang, whose notes filled the air with so much longing? But when she got to the place where the hound sang, she knew that something was wrong. She stopped. In front of her sat a shabby frame house with peeling paint, a house that slumped on one side as if it were sinking into the red dirt. The windows were cracked and grimy. There was a rusted pickup truck parked next to it, a dark puddle of thick oil pooled beneath its undercarriage. She sniffed the air. It was wrong, this place. The air was heavy with the scent of old bones, of fish and dried skins, skins that hung from the porch like a ragged curtain. Wrong was everywhere. She should turn around, she should go away, she should not look back. She swallowed. Perhaps she had taken the wrong path? What path should she take? All the paths were the same. She felt her kittens stir. It surely wouldn't be safe to stay here in this shabby place. She was about to turn around, when there it was again--the song, those silver notes, the ones that settled just beneath her skin. Her kittens stirred again, as if they, too, could hear the beckoning song. She stepped closer to the unkempt house, stepped into the overgrown yard. She cocked her ears and let the notes lead her, pull her around the corner. There they were, those bluesy notes.
Oh, I woke up, it was rainin',

But it was tears came fallin' down.

Yes, I woke up, it was rainin',

But it was tears came fallin' down.

Can't you see I'm tryin'?
Can't you hear my cryin'?
Can't you see I'm all alone?

Can't you throw this old dog a bone?

Then she realized, this song wasn't calling for a bone, it was calling for something else, someone else. Another step, another corner. And there he was, chained to the corner of the back porch. His eyes were closed, his head held back, baying. She should be afraid, she should turn around and run, she should climb the nearest tree. She did not. Instead, she simply walked right up to this baying hound and rubbed against his front legs. She knew the answer to his song, for if she could bay, her song would be the same. Here. Right here. Ranger. (9-11)
I really can't recommend this one highly enough.

© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Darcie said...

Becky - I tagged you for a read-a-thon meme. :) It's at

I can't wait to see your responses!

Sarah Miller said...

Are you glad you didn't save this one for the read-a-thon?

kathleen duey said...

Great review of an astounding book. I come here often to help decide what to read next...

Jenni said...

This is the fifth book that ever made me cry. The fourth was The Tale of Despereaux. Oh, how children's literature has changed...for the better.

Anonymous said...

I disagree - I thought this book was a cure for insomnia! Someone should tell the author that, just because she has a thesaurus, she does not have to use every word in there in one book. This could have been a great story, but the excessive wordiness makes its strictly mediocre. This is a fine example of how an author can beat her points to death. The only crying I did while listening to the audio version was from fear that this book would never end.


Anonymous said...

Nope. Sorry, Ms. Paula, but you've just proved how poor of a reader you are.