The Underneath

The Underneath
Age Range
Release Date
May 06, 2008
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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 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.

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A pregnant cat is abandoned by her family and lost in the wilds of the South. Lonely and afraid, she is drawn to the baying song of a hound dog, who is also lonely. Ranger lives with Gar Face, a cruel and abusive man who was himself mistreated as a child. Ranger is chained in the yard, has been shot in the leg, and is given a minimal amount of care. He wants to take care of the mother cat, so advises her to remain "underneath" the porch of the house. There, she gives birth two her kittens, whom she and Ranger name Puck and Sabine. Both older animals are glad of the companionship, and delight in the exploits of the kittens, but warn them that it is dangerous outside the underneath, and they should never go out. Of course, one day Puck can't help himself, but his appearance angers Gar Face, who takes him and his mother, puts them in a burlap bag, and throws them in the water. Only Puck survives, and since his mother has made him promise to release Ranger from his chains and look after Sabine, he makes his weary way back to the pair, who are trying to survive on their own and avoid Gar Face at all costs.

In an alternating story line, we have a folkloric Caddo tale about a serpent, Grandmother Moccasin, who has been imprisoned because of events in her past. She is poised to escape and put these events to rights, and her story intersects with that of the animals in a poignant way.

This lyrical, atmospheric story is celebrating its tenth year in publication, and was a Newbery Medal Nominee (2009) and National Book Award Finalist for Young People's Literature (2008). It is a compelling story about friendship and the importance of keeping promises, and is unflinching in its portrayal of Gar Face's evil and inhumanity.

Readers who find books about animals in adverse circumstances, such as Lee's Dog Lost and Cat Found, Naylor's Shiloh, and especially Rawl's Where the Red Fern Grows will be drawn to the pathos of the cats and dog in adverse circumstances trying their best to have a decent life. The details of hunting small animals, avoiding dangers, and, most of all, providing an emotionally supportive community for each other are heart wrenching but hopeful.

While many teachers and parents read this book with elementary school children, those ages will benefit from the support the adults can give in understanding the story. Older students will be better able to process the difficult scenes on their own.

David Small's illustrations add another level of bittersweetness to this classic novel of friendship and integrity in the face of overwhelming odds.
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