One dog, three cats. One hundred-foot-long ancient alligator. One massive ancient snake with a magical lineage. The stories of these characters evolve and intertwine against the backdrop of the bayous on the border of Louisiana and Texas.
The beauty of Kathi Appelt’s book is not just in its stories of love and longing and belonging, but in its rich characters, be they animal or human. It is in the atmosphere, the richness of the history of the area, the way Appelt paints the scenery and the inhabitants of these bayous. “The piney woods in far East Texas is wet and steamy. Take a step and your footprint will fill with water. Look up and you will barely see the sky, only small blue puzzle pieces, blocked by the ancient trees. It is hidden, this place, and so are its denizens…. oxbows and fens; vipers, rattlers and corals; snapping turtles, crawdads, alligators.” She sets the stage for her story, indeed, but at the same time, the stage itself is the story.
A little cat, expecting kittens, is abandoned, and as she wanders, she hears the howl of a hound, singing a lonesome, bluesy song that she can’t help but be drawn to. The two outcasts meet and know they have found a home together. When the two newcomers arrive, the four are a family. But the cats must stay in The Underneath, a safe spot below the porch of the ramshackle house where Ranger is chained. His master is cruel, all hard edges. The kittens, Sabine and Puck, are told to never leave The Underneath. But when Puck ventures out to enjoy some sun, he finds out the hard way that the warnings were in place for very good reasons.
Puck must find a way to save his family, to put all to rights once more, as much as is possible. The land, the marshes and their inhabitants work together at different times to hinder his progress or to help it. And the story of ancient Grandmother Moccasin plays out, unspooling one turn at a time throughout the pages of the book.
Appelt’s affection for her characters, including the land, is evident throughout this melodious book. The prose is poetic, lyrical, almost mesmerizing, a hypnotic rhythm. It lulls and spins. The story is lovely, and the way it is told is even lovelier. The Underneath is not to be missed.
Rated: Mild (for young readers). There is no language, but there is violence, and the scary situations could unnerve younger readers. “None” for adults and older readers.