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Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

I recently read Kathi Appelt's The Underneath, a first novel with cats, snakes, mythological beings, a bad man, and an alligator, all capable of thought. The book was good enough to win a Newbery Honor medal (not the top award, but a high honor). It also won other awards. The book was published in 2008 by Atheneum (New York).

What made this a good book?

The point of view was one notable feature. That shifts between characters, and parts of the book are told from the point of view of at least eight of them, including the trees. The number of chapters is also remarkable -- there are 123 of them, averaging less than 3 pages per chapter. One reason for that is to make changes of point of view. There are good illustrations.

The setting is unusual. It is the swampy area between Texas and Lousiana. So is the time frame, which is a thousand years, more or less. Some of Appelt's trees live that long. So does a very large (a hundred feet) alligator. So does a being who is a lamia, who can appear as a very large water moccasin, or as a human being. The Caddo Indians, who lived in the area long ago, play a part.

I was pleased with the surprise ending. Let me leave it as a surprise, except to say that unselfish love triumphs in the end, and comes from an unexpected source.

The story has its dark moments, including deaths of some of the characters. But it also has cute kittens and a faithful hound. Here's Appelt on purring:
Purring is not so different from praying. To a tree, a cat's purr is one of the purest of all prayers, for in it lies a whole mixture of gratitude and longing, the twin ingredients of every prayer. (201)

Thanks for reading. Read Appelt.

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