The Underneath is one of the newest Newbery Honor books (it was given the award in 2009), and it is also Kathi Appelt’s debut novel. It’s a fairly long book (300 pages), but there’s nothing too scary or traumatic in it, so kids of all ages would probably enjoy it. The plot intertwines two different stories, taking place at two different times but in the same place.
The present day plotline is about a mother cat, her two kittens, and an old hound dog who live together in “The Underneath,” a hidden area below the porch where Gar Face, the hound dog’s cruel owner, can’t see them. When tragedy strikes one sunny day, the two kittens and the hound dog have to dig deep within themselves to find each other again and free themselves from Gar Face.
The second plotline takes place along the same East Texas bayou, about a thousand years in the past. A shapeshifter, Grandmother Moccasin, is betrayed by her daughter, who chooses to leave her snake form and become human in order to be with the man she loves. Grandmother Moccasin spends a thousand years sleeping in an ancient jar that is tangled in the roots of a tree along the bayou, and as the story moves along in the present day, we learn more about Grandmother Moccasin’s history and how she became so bitter and cruel.
I really wanted to like this book more than I did. The front cover has a quote from one of my favorite children’s book authors, Louis Sacher, who says that The Underneath is “A mysterious and magical story,” while quotes on the back cover state that the book “reads like a ballad sung” (Ashley Bryan) and “reminds me why I wanted to be a writer” (Alison McGhee). I think those glowing reviews made me forget something I’ve known about myself for a long time–I don’t like animal stories. I just don’t. I vaguely remember reading Misty of Chincoteague and Old Yeller, and I just didn’t enjoy them, even as a kid. So rest assured, this book is well written, and it’s certainly the most interesting animal story I’ve read in a long time. It’s just not my cup of tea.
Rating: Good but Forgettable