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The Underneath

by Kathi Appelt

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2008
311 pages
ISBN: 978-1416950585

Ages 9-14

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 and more sinister. The story has two main narrative strands. The first, set in the present day, involves Ranger, an old hound, past his prime, who has been chained to the side of a ramshackle house for a long time, never allowed to go further than the twenty feet his chain allows him. Ranger's master, Gar Face, is a despicable, mean-spirited loner, cruel and unredeemable. He's chained Ranger up to punish him for a hunting mistake he made years earlier. Ranger's baying has attracted a lonely calico cat, who joins him in The Underneath, the small protection afforded them by the space beneath Gar Face's front porch. There she gives birth to two kittens: Sabine and Puck. When Puck ventures out from The Underneath one day to loll in the sunlight, disaster strikes: Gar Face scoops up him and the mama cat and throws them both in burlap bag which he in turn dumps in the river. Puck manages to escape and survive, and tries to find his way back to The Underneath. The second intertwining story takes place a thousand years back, and features Grandmother Moccasin, a deadly snake whose only joy in life is her daughter, Night Song. She and her daughter are both magic beings who can change into human form, but only one time. Once they change back into snakes, they will be snakes forever. They lead a full and happy life together until Night Song falls in love with another magical being -- a hawk, who can also assume human form. Night Song and Hawk Man go off together to live as human beings among the Caddo people. They have a daughter together who becomes the central focus of their lives. Everything would be fine if it weren't for Grandmother Moccasin who was left behind. She misses her daughter desperately and wants her back. And this is not the first time she has felt betrayed by a man. She seethes in anger, with only her distant relative, the Alligator King, for company. The alligator is as old as she is, and, over the years, has grown to over 100 feet in the waters of the bayou where he lives. He constantly patrols the water, looking for any unfortunate prey that happens to cross his path. There's the man in the boat, for instance, who's always after him. Gar Face has made it his life mission to kill the alligator, not just for the money the skin would bring him, but for the respect and bragging rights. The two narrative strands are tied together by a strong sense of place, and by the tension that builds as these two ancient creatures wait -- one for prey and one for revenge. The point of view weaves in and out of the heads of all of the afore-mentioned characters in very short chapters of two to three pages each. In spite of this jumping around, the story has a very leisurely pace, and readers always know exactly where they are in time and space. The prose is exquisite and begs to be read aloud. But this is not a sweet bedtime story for small children. Although it's beautifully written and features cute, furry critters, ultimately it's 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 often fleeting, as slippery as a snake's shimmering skin. (KTH) ©2008 Cooperative Children’s Book Center

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