The first thing I thought when I finished reading The Underneath, by Kathi Appelt, which I read for the “Read a Middle Grade Book” task in the 2016 Reading Challenge, was that it was an absolutely wonderful book.
The second thing I thought was that I was so glad this book wasn’t around when my daughter was still young enough for me to read it to her. I’m not sure I could have managed it — not because it’s not poetic and lovely and with language that would be a pleasure to read aloud and taste in your mouth (it is all those things), but because it is so heartbreaking and puts you through such an emotional wringer that we both would have been shaken by it (spoiler alert: there is a happy ending for some of the characters). On the other hand, it wouldn’t be the first book I read to her where my voice broke at some of the more emotional parts, so I’m sure we would have survived.
Any story that starts with a pregnant calico cat being abandoned by her humans by the side of the road is signaling to you that this is not going to be an easy ride, but don’t let that stop you from reading this book. The calico cat finds a home soon enough, though it’s a spot under a ramshackle shack and her companion is Ranger, a damaged hound dog who’s chained to a post. There is a lot of love in this book, between the calico cat (who doesn’t get a name) and Ranger, between her and her two kittens, Puck and Sabine, and between those kittens and Ranger, who is a father to them. There is also a love story in the past, between a pair of shape shifters, Night Song and Hawk Man, and their daughter (who never gets a name either).
There are also some very scary characters, first and foremost among them, Gar Face, the man who lives in the shack, who shot Ranger and chained him to the cabin, and who is in pursuit of a giant alligator in the river nearby. Gar Face is a horrible person, abused in his own childhood, who has no qualms about killing animals for pelts or just for the hell of it. While we see his background in one of the threads of the story, his past doesn’t excuse his nastiness and the danger he poses to the animal family in the present.
Another of the villains is a shape-shifting lamia (snake and woman), Grandmother Moccasin, who has been imprisoned in a clay jar for a thousand years (and we learn how and why that happened) under the roots of one of the trees in this bayou, waiting for her escape and to get revenge, but on whom?
The three stories, that of Gar Face as a young man, that of Grandmother Moccasin and Night Song and Hawk Man a thousand years ago, and that of Ranger and the cats in the present, weave in and out of each other and come together at the end in a very satisfying way. I’m not going to spoil the book by giving away plot points, though I will warn you there’s death here and not only of characters you don’t like (if you’re reading this to a child, this is definitely something to keep in mind). It’s suspenseful and moving, and beautifully written, and something I probably wouldn’t have read if it weren’t for the category in the 2016 Reading Challenge, so once again I have been enriched by the challenge, and if you’re looking for a middle grade novel for that or for any other reason, you could hardly do better than The Underneath.