A calico cat, about to have kittens, hears the lonely howl of a chained-up hound deep in the backwaters of the bayou. She dares to find him in the forest, and the hound dares to befriend this cat, this feline, this creature he is supposed to hate. They are an unlikely pair, about to become an unlikely family. Ranger urges the cat to hide underneath the porch, to raise her kittens there because Gar-Face, the man living inside the house, will surely use them as alligator bait should he find them. But they are safe in the Underneath...as long as they stay in the Underneath.
Kittens, however, are notoriously curious creatures. And one kitten’s one moment of curiosity sets off a chain of events that is astonishing, remarkable, and enormous in its meaning. For everyone who loves Sounder, Shiloh, and The Yearling, for everyone who loves the haunting beauty of writers such as Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers, Kathi Appelt spins a harrowing yet keenly sweet tale about the power of love—and its opposite, hate—the fragility of happiness and the importance of making good on your promises.
I started this book because I was looking for dog stories for my nine-year-old son. Specifically a dog story that did not end with the dog dying as so many of them do. Pretty much from the first page, maybe even the first sentence I knew this was not the book I was looking for. (I did however put a list together of books with non-dying dogs here.)
The chapters were short (a good thing for my boy), however the language was too flowery, almost poetic (something I loved, but did not think my son would be as enthusiastic about). And while the story moved along for the most part, I don’t think it moved along fast enough to fully capture his interest, which I admit is not easily captured by a book that is not Big Nate. Nevertheless, while The Underneath might not be a good choice for my son right now, it was definitely a story worth reading and one that I would heartily recommend.
The Underneath begins by sharing the story of a calico cat who finds a Hound to live with underneath a tilted house. The man who lives in the tilted house is evil and the Hound must keep the calico cat and her kittens (born soon after she finds the Underneath) safe. Before long, the author weaves the telling of another story into the narrative. A story that happened a thousand years ago; the story of Night Song and Hawk Man. Magical, suspenseful, and reminiscent of the best kind of folklore, the author masterfully pulls the reader into their story. Then jumps back and forth between the two until they are brought together in the end.
I picked up this book because of the picture of the dog on the cover; it didn’t take long for me to realize that although this is the story of a dog and two kittens, this is not really a story about a dog and two kittens. It turns out, this is a story about love. It is a story that declares to the reader it is never too late to choose love over hate.
The Underneath is a Newbery Honor Book as well as a National Book Award Finalist. The structure of the story, the word choice, the creativity of the telling and the overall message of the book make it a worthy finalist. While it may not have been the book I was looking for, it was a book I’m glad I found.
Spoiler and Sensitive Reader Alert:
Death is a part of this story. The calico cat dies early on, but saves her son. The story of Night Song and Hawk Man ends tragically (there is a lot of foreshadowing leading up to this), but the overall ending is happy and satisfying. The evil man who lives in the tilted house was not always evil. The author shares of the abuse he received at the hands of his father. She also shares how he abuses alcohol and animals. He is eaten by an alligator in the end. It is not graphic, but it is as dramatic as being eaten by an alligator sounds. :)
PS Reader age recommendations are just that, recommendations. I list them, oftentimes pulled right off of Amazon, to give you a general guide.
PPS All links to Amazon are affiliate links. If you like what you read here, using these links is a small way you can support the blog. Thank you!