Review of The Underneath
When I first began reading Kathi Appelt's book The Underneath, I felt the loneliness of the cat. I felt the rain on her fur and the cold in the air. "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. A small calico cat. Her family, the one she lived with, has left her in this old and forgotten forest, this forest where the rain is soaking into her fur."
I was drawn in immediately to the struggle of this cat to survive, not only for herself, but for her unborn kittens too. As she finds her way to Ranger, a chained up and abused dog, and the two bond, my love for this story grew. The themes of friendship, trust, and loyalty were strong, but so were ones of fear and abuse. As much as I love this book, I wonder about children reading it. There are scenes of violence, there are descriptions of Ranger's body as he is left without food and water for long periods of time, and there is an overall sadness to the book as well.
Appelt's writing is beautiful in its descriptions and simplicity. Even as she writes of the abuse of Gar-Face, even as she writes of betrayal and mistrust, her words have a quiet, haunting quality to them. "Beware this cruel boy..." she writes, "...this boy of darkness." And so we are aware of this boy and his role in the life of Ranger and his cat friend. We are aware of the "thing" awakening beneath the tree in the woods, and we are aware of something greater holding this book together.
Appelt's parallel stories of Grandmother Moccasin, a shape-shifting snake, and that of Ranger and Gar-Face, can be difficult to follow. Though the two come together in the end, the magical realism will be hard for some students to grasp, especially at younger ages. So, while I personally do love this book and think it deserves a place in the classroom, I would caution that its magical realism, incidences of violence, and the overall sad tone of the book make it one that isn't appropriate for ALL students. If you've got mature 10 year olds, they should be fine with it on their own. If you plan to use portions or all of this as a whole-class book, include plenty of discussion of the topics being mentioned in the story, especially when it comes to abuse.
Strong topics: violence, abuse of animals and people, death
Positive Themes: Love, redemption, friendship, trust
~ Julie Norman, Writer / Website Design, Gourmet Learning Inc