I’m a skeptical reviewer. I’m prone to be disappointed in the books I read if they don’t live up to my hopes. It’s a curse. Until I started hearing the rave reviews, “The Underneath” is not a book that I would typically be be inclined to pick up. I’m glad I put my prejudices aside. While there will be much deserved debate about its kid friendliness, to my 27 year old eyes this story is fantastic. Sure to cast a big shadow in the discussion when “Best Books of Aught 8” lists start coming together. Destined to stick with you long after putting it down.
It’s appropriate that Louis Sachar is quoted on the cover – the twin story line format (one ancient, one current) of his outstanding “Holes” is also present in “The Underneath”. An abandoned calico cat is lured deep into the bayou by the baying of an old hound dog, Ranger. The dog’s tortured owner, Gar Face, an alcoholic, is obsessed with the hunt of an elusive 100 foot long alligator. The cat gives birth to two kittens (Sabine and Puck) underneath Gar Face’s porch. Eventually they are discovered and the family is split up. Meanwhile, in a clay jar buried deep underneath a dying tree lives Grandmother Moccasin, who has a story of her own that will come to affect the lives of our main characters.
It took me a while to fully buy in to this story. I went through the first half not knowing what to think. A little too “listen to the language of the trees” perhaps. At about the halfway point I was hooked. For the last third it was an absolute page turner. The ending is what any reader hopes for: thrilling and satisfying.
In “The Underneath” words aren’t just words, they’re physical matter. Words can be breathed in, coughed out, and they can roll you over. Words, and the emotions they embody, figure prominently in this story.
Does it suffer from children’s lit for adults syndrome? There is a possibility. The story’s poetic quality will be too lyrical for many young readers. The sophisticated style of its descriptions will require a sophisticated reader to appreciate them. That may throw some off, since so much of this tale is wrapped up in the language used. This one is for upper elementary, to be sure.
This much I know: you’ll be thinking about “The Underneath” for a while after you’ve turned the last page. Not many books do that. An outstanding novel.
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(Courtesy of the new and outstanding children’s lit blog Library Voice)
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