The Underneath

By: Kathi Appelt, David Small

Star Rating:



Spoiler Disclaimer


After being abandoned on the side of the road by her family, a pregnant calico cat follows the mournful howl of a chained-up hound dog deep into the bayou. She befriends the poor old dog named Ranger, who urges her to stay beneath the dilapidated house because Gar Face, the mean man who lives there, would surely use her for gator bait if he finds her. The pair, along with Sabine and Puck, the two kittens she gives birth to, become an unlikely family. Ranger and Mama impress upon the kittens the importance of staying in The Underneath where it's safe. But too curious for his own good, Puck ventures out one day with disastrous consequences. Lost and far from home, he must find a way to survive so that he can keep a promise he made to Mama.

A thousand years ago there lived a lamia, half-snake/half human, known as Grandmother Moccasin. Mystical creatures such as herself can only take their human form once in a lifetime, but after becoming human and being betrayed by the human man she loved, Grandmother returned to her snake form. Deeply lonely, she was glad when a little lamia came along to keep her company. After adopting this youngster as a daughter, Grandmother named her Night Song and they spent many years together. But eventually Night Song fell in love with Hawk Man, and together, they took their human forms and became a family when they had a daughter of their own. However, Grandmother never forgave Night Song for leaving her and hatched a selfish plan to get her back. It backfired on her in a disastrous way, after which she found herself trapped in a jar and buried beneath a tree for the past millennia. It just so happens that it's the same tree beneath which little Puck takes refuge while trying to figure out how to get back to his family. In the nearby bayou lives King Alligator, a friend of Grandmother and a great temptation to Gar Face who wants the prestige of catching the giant gator. Eventually all of these characters come together and must make choices that will forever seal their fate.


The Underneath is a middle school fantasy novel that tells two different stories simultaneously that eventually converge into one cohesive whole. In the present, Mama the calico cat is pregnant when she's abandoned by the side of the road in the east Texas bayou. All alone, she hears the plaintive baying of a hound that speaks to her, so she follows his voice to a tumble-down shack in the middle of nowhere. She befriends the poor, old hound named Ranger, who has been chained to the porch for a long time. He urges her to stay in The Underneath, the space under the house where they'll be safe from Gar Face, the mean man who lives there and who will no doubt try to use the sweet cat as alligator bait if he finds her. There Mama gives birth to two kittens, Sabine and Puck, which she and Ranger care for, telling them to always stay in The Underneath. But as Puck gets older, his curiosity gets the best of him, and one day he leaves the safety of The Underneath with disastrous consequences that leave him separated from his family and fighting for survival as he struggles to keep a promise he made to Mama.

Alongside the story of the dog and three cats is another narrative that takes place a thousand years ago in the same area, told in the style of a Native American myth from the perspective of the ancient trees that see all. It tells the story of Grandmother Moccasin, who is a lamia, half-snake, half-human. She once took on her human form and fell in love with a human man who betrayed her, so she retook her snake form and can never become human again, for once an enchanted creature such as this returns to their animal form, that's how they'll stay for eternity. She wandered the bayou with her only friend being an enormous hundred-foot-long alligator. She was lonely for a long time until she crossed paths with another young lamia, Night Song, who became her adopted daughter. But when Night Song grew up, she fell in love with Hawk Man, and the two of them took on their human forms to be together, leaving Grandmother feeling once again betrayed. From then on, she lived in anger and resentment until a selfish and fateful decision led to terrible consequences that ended with Grandmother being imprisoned in a clay jar for the next thousand years. In the present, she's still alive in that jar buried deep beneath the roots of an old loblolly pine that sits on the banks of the Little Sorrowful creek, and in the nearby bayou, King Alligator still lives, too, presenting a temptation to Gar Face, who views him as the ultimate prize. The story of these animals and magical creatures eventually weave together in surprising ways.

The Underneath is aimed at middle-school readers with the back of the book stating for ages 10 and up. I definitely think it would be best suited to this age group. While younger kids might be tempted by the picture of the sad hound dog and cute kittens on the cover, it does cover some challenging themes that they might have difficulty processing. Gar Face is a miserable excuse for a human being, but he didn't become as mean as he is in a vacuum. There's a flashback scene where he's abused by his father, which leads to him running away and ending up in the swamp where he now lives. Untreated injuries from the abuse is what caused his face to become deformed and him to be known by the nickname Gar Face. He's also implied to be an alcoholic, drinking heavily and frequently due to his unhappiness. Grandmother Moccasin is angry for different reasons, and she allows her bitterness to fester until she doesn't tell her daughter the truth about something, leading to irrevocable consequences. However, she is redeemed in the end, and I think her earlier actions could be used as an object lesson for kids about the dangers of lying and selfishness. Three characters die, one out of selflessness, one of a broken heart, and one out of greed. Death can be a difficult topic for kids, but I think it can be helpful to process it through the safe lens of a story. The reasons that lead to each character's death could be used as talking points as well.

The issue that might be the most difficult, though, is the animal abuse and neglect that occurs throughout the story. Gar Face seems to only view animals as commodities or prizes, and even a pet, once it's outlived its usefulness, is no longer important to him. Poor Ranger has been chained to the house for a long time with an untreated injury, he often isn't fed properly, and later in the story he's further abused for daring to defend his only friend. Each of the cats ends up suffering in various ways because of Gar Face's actions, too. I don't want to make the story sound too bad or scary, though, because the nature of it allows other characters to step up and show goodness, and it has a positive ending. Most middle-schoolers could probably handle the material. I'd just say know your child's sensitivity level before allowing them to read it, and that it might best be read with parent or educator guidance. There's even a helpful reading guide at the back with discussion questions and suggested activities.

I'd have to say that The Underneath didn't end up being quite what I expected. The cover image and the book blurb make it seem like the story is all about Ranger and the kitties, perhaps something akin to The Incredible Journey, so the whole storyline about Grandmother Moccasin, Night Song, and the other enchanted creature characters was a bit of a surprise. I enjoyed each part of the narrative individually, but at first, I wasn't entirely sure what they had to do with one another. However, I can say that they do eventually merge in an interesting way. The book was a Newberry Honor Book and a National Book Award finalist, and I can see why. The writing itself is quite beautiful and has a lyrical quality to it that almost made it the equivalent of literary fiction for children. Because of this, the style may not grab some kids, and reluctant readers may find it to be a harder read. Although there is adventure within the story, it's rather slow-paced, but it still held my attention and probably would appeal to a certain subset of kids who are more literary-minded readers.

I already outlined some of the possible detractors, but there are many important and thought-provoking themes as well that could have a positive impact on kids, too, if properly explored. There's the concept of what it means to be a family and how some families are those of our choosing rather than biology. Ranger and the cats make a very odd family, but a family they are, and a very compelling one, at that. Their love for one another is sweet, pure, and unmistakable. In fact, the power of love--and hate--and how these emotions can affect lives for good or ill is palpable throughout. There's also the idea that promises shouldn't be made lightly, and that once made, one should do everything in their power to follow through with it, even if it's challenging. There are additional positive themes of determination, selflessness, empathy, kindness, and sharing even if you have little. I think that sometimes it takes seeing the struggle and how bad the world can be to really see the good in it, and for this reason, I think the story could have great value to kids. I would recommend it to middle-schoolers and up, even adults like myself, who would be interested in an accessible story that has deeper meaning and a lovely writing style.


Kathi Appelt

David Small