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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

The cover of this book grabs the eye and heart. And the story does the same, heart-wise.

The main character is a dog who is chained up 24-7 in the yard of an abusive, violent man who makes his home in a shack in a swamp. The dog is joined by a cat with her 2 kits who share his food and all create a real home in The Underneath: the space under the porch where the man remains unaware of them… for a time, anyway…

This is one of two stories. There is a second story that is told concurrently and overlaps with the first (if you’ve read Holes, you know exactly what I mean). This second story troubled me. It is a story of Indian people changing shape, and assuming form from animal to human. It is also the story of the love of the Indian girl who left her mother, “the Grandma” who has the form of a snake. She left for the love of a man who also took a different shape to share a life with her. The ancient Grandmother-snake wants her daughter back, and the story tells of how her daughter is tricked back into becoming a snake permanently and can't change back. This destroys the happy family-life of the daughter and her husband/child. It is very moving, and in the end, the snake sees a similarity in the dog/cat family of the first story, and she saves them by biting the chain that held the dog because at the last moment, she recognizes the love that she destroyed with her daughter’s family, and she makes a decision that helps her to redeem the selfish mistake she made.

A mature tween may have no problem seeing this as Indian-folklore, but I was sufficiently concerned by the new-age/pagan overtones of the second story, that I skipped it and read only the first story to my younger girls, and I read aloud a version of the snake doing its saviour-bit without the whole background story of Grandma snake.

So while I enjoyed the story as an adult, I would give a strong caution to the novel as a whole and encourage parents to read it first. The violent character of the man and the way he tries to drown a kitten whose mom dies saving it, should be noted for sensitive tweens….

SAFETY RATING: 1 Vatican Flag


Anonymous,  February 17, 2010 at 12:46 PM  

We are thinking of participating in a library book club but have some reservations about some of them already. Can you tell us if you know about any of them? Artemis Fowl, A Year Down Yonder, When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, and Holes. Thank you! Carolyn

Tween Lit Crit February 18, 2010 at 8:34 PM  

Thanks, Carolyn; I'll add these to my list...

It's been a couple years since I read Artemis and Holes, so I can't give them a thorough review. Artemis's character alarmed me at first. He's a boy genius, operating behind his parents' backs. He is manipulative, ego-driven, and completely comfortable with skirting law and order to achieve his goal. However... he ends up building relationships with the fairy he captures and over the courses of the books, he starts to gain in humility, morality, and develops real relationships with people he formerly treated with disregard. It's not a quick change, but that makes it more believeable, and you end up rooting for his transformation. There's lots of adventure and fun action. Quite engaging.

It has magic in terms of faires, dwarves, and the fairies getting power through the full mooon. Its not occultish. Fairies and centaurs have re-located under the earth because they lost a war with the humans and wanted to make their own home.

I don't remember anything else questionable unless you count the crass dwarf that unhinges his jaw to eat through earth, and it comes out the other end. Yum.

Holes... my caution would be that in Stanley's world, I remember there being a preponderance of bad adults. (He's sent to juvie camp when falsely accused of stealing a pair of shoes.) It's part of the plot device, but just a caution. The concurrent story is a love story between a white woman and a black man which upsets the town and ends badly for them. She becomes an outlaw, but I can't remember what crimes she committed in the book. I think in the movie she kisses people that she's killed and commits suicide via snakebite. I thought that was a bit much. That might be worth checking. If I remember correctly, the love-story didn't have too much information for tweens.

My older tween read A Year Down Yonder and thought it was funny and a great read. I haven't read it, though.

Neither of us have read Zachary Beaver! (yet)...

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