Plot Summary: A calico cat, about to have kittens, finds a hound chained-up hound deep in the backwaters of the bayou. And the hound, Ranger, befriends this creature he is supposed to hate. 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 moment of curiosity sets off a chain of events that changes their lives forever.
This book was nominated for the National Book Award. I’ve heard many people talking about it, recommending it, insisting that it was going to win some kind of award this year. And that was before it was nominated, so I’d already had it on my TBR list. After the nomination, I bumped it up.
I can see why so many people think it will win an award. It’s literary and thoughtful, with loveable characters and horrible villains (who even have a sympathetic side). And yet, I didn’t love it. It took me a long time to figure out why, but I finally did.
As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below.
There is no main character. We delve into one character, then move on to another, then come back, then move on, etc. As a result, we get to know what many of the characters are thinking because they tell us themselves. It allows us to get to know them fairly well so we know why they do the things they do, and even evokes sympathy in the unlikeliest characters.
For example, Gar-Face is a mean man who keeps his dog chained in his yard, feeding him occasionally. We find out that he was harshly abused as a child, and he never faced those demons, evoking sympathy even though he’s still a mean man. Also, the Alligator King is a one hundred foot long alligator. That right there is enough to make the reader say “Yikes! Gar-Face, get rid of him!” He does what all alligators do – eats the young, innocent, wounded, unsuspecting, whoever crosses his path. Yet, he has wisdom that he passes on to other characters that almost makes him likable.
But, there’s still no main character. Hence, I could not figure out who’s story this is. I still can’t. I got to know the characters up to a certain point, but never got to really and truly delve into them. Not the way you get to know a single main character, because you’re spending so much time with him.
As a result, not all of these characters’ actions made sense to me.
The actions of Ranger and the cats were completely understandable. But they’re the good guys. We see them grow, find themselves through loss and grief, then come together stronger in the end.
Grandmother Moccasin, however, doesn’t go through this kind of growth, yet she’s the key figure in the end. Throughout the story, we see how bitter and angry she is, how selfish and unrepentant she is, as well as what she’s capable of (via flashbacks). She’s the one character that didn’t evoke sympathy from me, not even once. In the end, she suddenly casts aside her anger and chooses to help the dog and cats – which left me scratching my head. I suppose you could say that all the anger she showed us throughout the story was anger at herself, but that’s not how it was presented. And, at least to me, that feels contrived, especially since the resolution was pretty predictable.
Throughout the story, we’re shown how powerful Grandmother’s jaws are, the things she could slice through. What else presented in the story could break Ranger’s chain? Nothing. So I felt that her intent to eat the kittens, only to suddenly help them, felt like clumsy sleight of hand.
I think that if one main character had been chosen to tell this story, and if we’d actually seen more of Grandmother’s choice to be selfless instead of selfish, or at least presented in a way that not everyone is a caricature, this would have been an amazingly powerful story. As it is, it’s good. Not great. But maybe that’s just me.