Monday, November 8, 2010

YA Novel Review: The Underneath

YA author Kathi Appelt's The Underneath is a fable of a young cat who saves his twin sister and an old beaten-to-an-inch-of-his-death hound dog.

Heavy with savage cruelty and stinging bitterness,  The Underneath is story of redemption.

In the Acknowledgements, Appelt writes that she was given the sage advice, "Write what you think you can't."  I will be very interested to hear her explain what that advice meant to her and how it helped shaped the developments of the novel when she speaks to my Creative Writing classes this December through Skype.

There are stretches in The Underneath when I feel like I am reading Kipling.  This is a good thing in that Appelt has been able to make anthropomorphic characters truly believable and real.  In this, the sorrow becomes real, the danger and the suspense becomes real.  I didn't feel like I was reading a simple YA book about the friendships between kitty-cats and doggies.

It is a mature YA novel because when Appelt shifts between plot lines older readers will find themselves missing the characters they had just been with, and more often than not, will be concerned about what may be next.  For me, this is the real success of The Underneath, you find yourself caring about the characters.

Cleverly, Appelt's story develops as one which has been 1000 years in the making.  The style of this "ancient" structure of the story absolutely makes it feel old and wise and passed on through generations of nature among the animals.  How and when and why these characters cross paths is just a brilliant arrangement by Appelt: an abandoned calico cat, her two kittens, a beaten old hound dog, a hawk, an ancient cottonmouth viper, her daughter and granddaughter, a hummingbird who brings the dead to the next life (who hovers between the world of light and darkness), a 100 foot long ancient aligator, and the resident villain of the novel, Gar-Face, an incredibly real (and sadly) cruel, cruel, human being.

Yet the real star of the novel is her use of trees.  Reminiscent of the Ents from The Lord of the Rings and something else mysterious and magical, trees play an important, subtle, and artistic role in the story.  I would be very interested hearing my creative writing students speculate about the role of the trees in this book.

The emotions in the book are indeed heavy at times, yet these emotions also serve to pull the reader through the book.  You find yourself constantly asking, it can't get any worse for this creature can it?   You may find yourself feeling a little like Annie Wilkes as the novel makes it way towards it climax and the hummingbird (the guardian angel who peacefully escorts characters who die to the next world) starts to hover near your favorite character and there are only a few pages left. ("You can't kill Misery!  No!!!)

Overall rating: Highly Recommended for older middle school readers and up

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