Puck and Sabine’s mother warns her kittens never to venture outside the dark space beneath the porch where they live, the Underneath. There they are protected from Gar Face, a hard-edged, bitter, drinking man who lives in the falling-down house. But kittens are naturally mischievous and curious.
Ranger, a slobbery hound dog who loves the two kittens, is chained up in the Underneath, and Gar Face feeds him meagerly, if at all. As he roams the East Texas Piney Woods forest alone, Gar Face is surrounded by bayous, rivers, and critters, both fantastic and real. He carries a gun, protection from snapping turtles and copperheads.
Although their mother tells her kittens to stay in the protected place under the porch so they will be safe from predators, of course they disobey. And readers are in for a page-turning adventure.
In Kathi Appelt’s mesmerizing story, The Underneath, the woods are as magical as her words.
“There is not much a tree can do besides stand still under the sun and stars” she writes, “or bend back and forth in the wind. But here and there, perhaps once every thousand years ... a tree can, if it chooses, take matters into its own branches.” Trees are keepers of tales, and, in some ways, the heroes of this one.
Interwoven chapters in this perfect survival story describe a 100-foot Alligator King, a creature older than the forest who lives in a jar, and the ancient people known as the Chaddo. But always we keep coming back to the kittens’ plight and to Ranger, their surrogate hound-dog papa.
This tale of a lonely, loving dog watching over twin kittens, of imaginary beings that shift from human to mythical, is an old-fashioned parable of good overcoming evil and of the consequences of breaking the rules. It is the story of a just-about-perfect world turned upside down by curiosity and rescued by love. Appelt shows young readers how, at some deep level, everything is interconnected – the rivers, the bayous, the beings lurking in the woods, and two small kittens who lose their loving calico cat mother.
One caveat: Although a novel featuring two innocent kittens peering out from the Underneath on the cover might seem to appeal to young children, the hauntingly dark themes and lyrical language are more appropriate for ages 10 and up.
And those readers will be captivated.
Augusta Scattergood is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg, Fla.