When I'm stressed out, but still need to read books to stay sane, I find that I tend to pick books geared towards younger readers. You know, the ones with "junior" or "YA" on the spine. I think it's because reading helps me relax, yet my brain is so far into overdrive that I cannot possibly handle something that would make me think too much. I've had two very excellent novels on my nightstand for the last 6 weeks and haven't cracked either one open. Instead, I have plowed my way through several YA and junior books and they have provided that necessary release of tension. Maybe I'm juvenile at heart. I'm okay with that.
When I kept seeing this book on different blogs that I read and heard the many whispers of "Newberry", I knew I had to check it out for myself. The Underneath by Kathi Appelt was completely different from what I expected and anticipated. This book fit my requirement for no-thinking-required, but still kept me riveted. The cover didn't tell me much more than it would have a dog and some cats in it. It is about an abandoned, pregnant calico cat who wanders into the yard of a cruel, disfigured man named Gar Face who has tied up his wounded hound dog as punishment for getting in the way on a hunt. The cat gets under the house before she's seen by the man and befriends the dog, who is desperately lonely and in need of love. When her kittens are born, he acts as adoptive father and protector to them, though when Gar Face discovers the cats' existence, the dog is powerless against him.
In the midst of all this, the story keeps cutting to a strange creature buried under an ancient loblolly pine tree in the forest. The creature knows it will be released soon and wants revenge from a loss it experienced a thousand years ago. You get flashback scenes from the creatures pre-buried existence and the foreboding builds. Oh my, the foreboding. It's very thick stuff, that foreboding. You know that these animals' paths will intersect with the creature, along with that of Gar Face and you start to dread it. Did I mention there is a 100 foot long alligator too? Gar Face is hunting him as the ultimate prize to win him respect and notoriety amongst the other hunters. The creature is friends with the alligator too. Wow, I'm having a hard time keeping this straight to explain it. In case you're wondering about the alligator, the story takes place in southeast Texas, a place in which alligators tend to reside.
The writing is kind of meandering, kind of poetic, kind of beautiful and kind of suspenseful. Too many kind of's, really. I kind of wish she had made it a bit easier to understand, since this book is geared toward kids in fourth to eighth grades. The cruelty and harshness of Gar Face is too much for a fourth grader to handle, in my opinion, but it also makes the love between the dog and cats that much more wonderful. I wouldn't introduce it to my tender-hearted kids until they were big enough to understand better the need for a character like Gar Face to exist.
Whatever else I could say about this book, the ending was perfect. I could not have been happier with the ending. So many books are great up until the ending, so to have this book be pretty darn good, some meandering, but then, WHAMMO! perfect ending has earned major points for me. David Small did the drawings and, as always, was a perfect accompaniment to the story, so that's more going for it.
Is it Newberry material? I have no idea, since I don't know what they take into account when they give out those awards, but at least if Appelt's book receives even an honor, if not the actual award, I'll know what all the fuss was about.