The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

Milford Sound in New Zealand To this day, I remember where I was when I finished reading Where the Red Fern Grows . I was in the car (my mom had run into Service Merchandise) and caught completely off-guard by the climax of the book. I remember the tears running down my face as I turned the pages, alternately shocked that my aunt had recommended a book like this to me and overjoyed that someone had managed to capture a love so deep and true between a boy and his dogs. While it broke my heart, it also became one of my favorite books of all time. It has been more than a decade since I first read Wilson Rawls’ classic novel and nothing has touched me the same way since that day. That is, until I read Kathi Appelts’ debut novel, The Underneath.

The Underneath is all at once tragic, consuming, passionate, full of love, hopeful, and alternately beautiful and ugly. Appelt does the almost-impossible, by threading 3 separate stories into one amazing climax that will renew your faith in goodness and love. It is an adventure, full of magic, myth, and mysticism, of sorrow, of family – of life. Woven together like an elaborate tapestry, the result is gorgeous and awe-inspiring.

The blurb on the back cover quotes author Alison McGhee as saying, ” Rarely do I come across a book that makes me catch my breath, that reminds me why I wanted to be a writer—to make of life something beautiful, something enduring.” While you may be ready to scoff (I admit I was!), reading just a few pages will convince you that McGhee is absolutely right. This novel is an inspiration to anyone who writes. Appelt’s debut novel is haunting, lyrical, and poetic. While the stories seem separate at first, they come together in a stunning conclusion that wraps up all loose ends.

Appelt is a master storyteller, and seems a natural heir to Natalie Babbitt, one of America’s foremost children’s authors. In fact, her use of symbolism and vivid imagery reminded me of Babbitt in many ways. I would love to use The Underneath in my class, as a companion to Tuck Everlasting.

It’s almost impossible to describe what the story is about. It takes place deep, deep in a Southern bayou- a place full of mysticism and magic. There is a bad man, an evil man. There is an abandoned calico cat- “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”. Heartbreaking, isn’t it? There is an abused hound dog, chained to a porch, fed sparingly and kicked often. Later, there is a family made up that abandoned calico cat, the abused hound dog, and two new kittens. One of those kittens ventures out from the safety of the Underneath and sets into motion a chain of events that changes their lives.

There are sentient trees, ancient shape-shifters, and myth and magic. Lullabies and secrets that only the trees know. Yet it all seems so real.

I feel like no review can do this book justice. It is magical and wonderful, sad and full of hope. There is so much hate but also so much love. Kate Appelt has written a new classic and I would be shocked if this was not given high honors by the Newbery committee in January.

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