Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

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 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.


Marcia said...

What a thoughtful post. I did love the book, but in somewhat more of an "in awe" way than an "I am so moved" way. I was a bit fixated on trying to figure out the effect of the writing style, how it repeated (almost kind of stuttered or hiccuped) certain phrases. I guess I saw it as such a broad story, so much along the theme of "one simple action can have untold effects" that there was no way it could ever be one person's story, and I saw the successful weaving together of such disparate parts as its power. Then again, a crit partner of mine couldn't read it. She was just too shaken by the grim parts. I expect it to win awards, but I suppose the misgivings could hold it back.

Unknown said...

Haven't read it, so I'm not commenting on the review. But I have noticed lately that a lot of the books being nominated (I'm thinking of Octavian Nothing in particular) are not really books that I enjoyed.

Anne Spollen said...

I started that book, but couldn't pick it up again because I thought it was me -- I was not getting the narrative right.

It could be that the difficulty with this story lies in how some folks construe her style as artistic and really creative (hence the nomination)and for others it's just confusing. I'm with the others on this one, though I do remember some of the writing being wonderful.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Not knowing whose story it is does seem like a huge problem. I may avoid this book for that reason, although with such high praise, I'll possibly give it a chance.

This helps me with my own writing, though! I currently have three MCs in my WIP who tell the story. I'll be sure to make it clear whose story it is. It's obviously important!

Thanks for the great review.

PJ Hoover said...

I haven't read the book, though I did read your review. I have heard great things about the book, so it's nice to see a slightly different perspective!

Kelly Polark said...

Interesting story...I like reading what everyone else thought about it as well!

Jacqui said...

Tabitha, your reviews are always so thoughtful and honest. You always articulate things I was thinking but hadn't thought clearly. Thanks.

Mary Witzl said...

Marcia and Jacqui used up all the adjectives I was planning to use and I don't want to sound sycophantic! But consider their comments doubled.

I love the way you think about what you read instead of merely reacting to it. I wonder whether I'd have asked myself why I didn't like this book so much if I'd read it. I certainly do this with books for adults, but I'm not sure that I do it so much with kids' books. And there is no question about it -- I should. I will from now on.

Tabitha said...

Sorry I was absent yesterday. There was a snow storm moving toward Chicago and I spent all day getting supplies and preparing to be snowed in. And it's a good thing I did because we're snowed in. :) Both my kids are home for snow days.

Marcia - I can see exactly why you loved this book, just as I can see why it was nominated for the NBA. For those who like literary books, this is something they will love. There are lots of strong metaphors, beautiful writing, and likeable characters. For me, the literary quality was too obvious and put me off. But I think that's just personal taste. I prefer stories where I'm being given information and don't even know it until later in the story, or even the second read-through. THE UNDERNEATH didn't do that for me. But I'm glad you shared why you loved it. It's great to hear from all sides. :)

Beth - there have been a few discussions about award winning books not being exactly enjoyable, and that kids are actively avoiding. I'm wondering if it's a phase or a new direction the award committees are taking?

Anne - I had trouble with the narrative, too. The writing was strong, but too...I don't she was trying too hard to sound literary. I hope that makes sense. I prefer the direct approach, so this style put me off.

Lady Glamis - I don't think I've ever read a book where I didn't know who's story it was, until this one. Even with other multiple viewpoint books, I've always known who the main characters are. But with this one, it almost seemed like everyone was a main character. It made me feel torn in too many ways. Which reinforces my view that only one main character is needed. :)

PJ - glad you enjoyed it. And if you read the book, I hope you'll share your view, especially if you end up loving it, cause I'd love to hear why! :)

Kelly - yeah, some great comments here. :) The blogosphere is such a great place!! :)

Jacqui - what an amazing compliment, thanks! :)

Mary - thanks!! :) And I think it's great you're going to start thinking about why you liked/disliked a particular book. :)

Personally, I see reading as part of my writing process. I know what I know, and I also know there are things I don't know. So, how do I learn about what I don't know? From other writers. It's too expensive to go to conferences all the time, and they don't happen often enough for my taste anyway. So I go to books that have made it to the shelves. I love some of them, hate others, and the rest fall in between.

It can get cumbersome to learn about the craft of writing this way, because even if I hate a book I will still read the whole thing. My friends think I'm crazy for doing it, but I'm convinced that I can still learn something from books I hate. And I have in the past. It's not the most pleasant experience, but it gets me what I want - which is one step closer to a publishable manuscript. :)

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

I haven't commented in a while because I haven't read the books you've been discussing, but just thought I'd pop my head up and say I'm lurking!
I too enjoy the way you analyze the elements of books to say why you thought something worked, or didn't.

--Jenn H.

Mary Witzl said...

I do this too! I think I could count the books I have left unfinished on the fingers of one hand. If I don't finish a book, there are either extenuating circumstances or the book is dreadful beyond salvation. I do the same thing with food; I'm a firm member of the Clean Plate Club.

Tabitha said...

Jenn - thanks! I've been lurking on your site too. :) Just haven't had the time to comment. :(

Mary - LOL!! I'm a plate-cleaner, too! I think there's something wired within me to finish what I start, even if it's not completely necessary. :)