As December looms before us and the January ALA book award ceremonies draws ever closer, the speculation about what books may be front runners for the prestigious Newbery Award reaches a frenzied pitch. One book that has been bandied about by numerous Mock-Newbery groups is Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath.
The book features three separate stories that weave together at various points – the saga of three cats and a hound, the epic story of Grandmother Moccasin, and the less savory story story of the evil man known only as Gar Face. Although most of the book is soaked in melancholy – despite the cutesy cover and short chapter, the publishers weren’t kidding when they made the suggested reading age 10 and up – the book ultimately ends on a note of hope. Redemptive ending aside, tragedy abounds – a mother cat is purposefully drowned, a loving wife and mother dies of sorrow when separated from her family, a father is poisoned in an attempt to protect his wife and child, a young boy is beaten by his alcoholic father. Whether these events are bothersome depends largely on the reader. Personally, I found it very hard to make any real emotional connection to the characters. I was mildly sad when the cat died, but during other events that should have been wrenching I could not summon up any reactions beyond acknowledgment of the plot point.
I think that part of my inability to empathize with the characters derived from the writing style. This book is beautifully written. The prose is exquisite, and the author clearly put a great deal of thought into her word choice. Unfortunately, that’s the problem. I was quite often taken out of the flow of the story because I was distracted by the ways in which the story was being told. I have seen a recent trend in young adult literature of using incomplete sentences to make a point. In this book it is taken to a new level. Almost every page has an incomplete sentence, as though the author were using periods as an emphatic punctuation mark. This is not a mark of being unable to write; on the contrary, it is clear that the author is purposefully choosing particular sentences to emphasize in this way. Yet, the sheer volume of times this is done starts to erode the technique’s effectiveness.
It is hard to criticize a book for having writing that is too polished or too good. It doesn’t seem to make sense to say “I didn’t like it because it was too well-written.” But that is undeniably what happened to me. The story was lost in the words. Would I recommend this book? Yes, because, again, the prose is amazing. But do I think that I will re-read it, or that it will become a favorite that children will cherish for generations… no, unfortunately I do not.