Monday, August 18, 2008

The Underneath

I haven't been writing much, but reading tons. And even though I read The Underneath by Kathi Appelt a short while back, her voice and characters are in my head, and I wonder whether Ranger sings the blues again, whether the kittens, Sabine and Puck, have kittens of their own and what new stories the trees harbor.
I have mixed feelings about this book. It's luminous. The author is clearly a poet -- every word has been chosen with care. But I wondered whether this is a book for children, whether children would enjoy it. My nine-year-old, who is a voracious reader and mature for his age, put this one down. This is a boy who read Where the Red Fern Grows when he was seven, who couldn't put it down, even though he could barely read through the tears. We were all reading it together, but being the way he is, he read ahead and discovered tragedy for himself, alone. Later he told his then five-year-old sister what happened (to more tears). But I digress.
We aren't strangers to Ms. Appelt's books. My kids loved her Bubba and Beau series of picture books. And I discovered her memoir -- My Father's Summers. What a lot of memories that book churned up for me. But The Underneath is Ms. Appelt's best book. I'll say this inspite of all the kvetching I'm going to do, which isn't much.
The book starts off beautifully: 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. Immediately I have this intense longing to pick up this calico cat. How her life and those of her kittens unfolds is the central thread. But Ms. Appelt interrupts the thread with several others -- the trees, the snake, the alligator, and many more. They all eventually come together, and I sighed a huge sigh of satisfaction at the end. Because like a Victor Hugo novel, everything is accounted for, explained. There are no loose threads. And I thoroughly enjoyed the magic realism, reminiscent in the stories of South American authors Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende.
I could hear Ms. Appelt's voice (and I do not know her), her Texas accent, telling me this story. She is a master. From the first sentence you can trust her, inspite of the maddening interludes (which aren't really interludes at all). I will read this book aloud to my children when they are older. And I know my son will read ahead ... and discover pain and anguish for himself. And love too. It's power.
I'm thinking Newbery :) What about you?


Angela said...

Well, I can see that I need to get to the library and quick. Thanks for the book recommendation.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Vijaya! I love Appelt's poetry books. I checked this one out a month or two ago, but my teen was looking for something to read and took it. Then it turned out she started it but didn't really get into it. And by that time it was due back at the library, and there was a wait list for it, so I couldn't renew. I'll have to put it on reserve again. I'm not huge on animal novels (even though I was as a kid), but I'm intrigued...

Vijaya said...

I'm a big fan of animal stories so I stuck with it, to be richly rewarded. I hope your daughter picks it up again at a later time. Perhaps you two can read it aloud to each other ... the language sings.