Mystery, Magic, and Memory in the Texas Bayou

h1 June 10th, 2008 by jules

As I mentioned this past Sunday, I took a blog break last week just to get caught up on some reading. As it turns out, this very intriguing novel was staring me in the face. On the back of it, author Alison McGhee is quoted as saying, “{r}arely do I come across a book that makes me catch my breath, that reminds me why I wanted to be a writer—to make of life something beautiful, something enduring.” Whoa. Well, maybe I’m a sucker, but statements like that pique my interest. Or, as Betsy Bird put it in her review of this title, “{w}hen you pick up a copy of The Underneath by Kathi Appelt and you read the words, ‘A novel like this only comes around every few decades,’ on the back cover you’re forgiven if you scoff a little. Uh-huh. Suuuuuure it does. But doggone it if it isn’t true.”

Once I picked this one up, I was spellbound. Couldn’t put it down. I fell into the world of Gar-Face and the muddy Bayou Tartine and the Alligator King pretty hard, and I couldn’t pull myself out ’til I was done with the book. And I couldn’t do much else ’til I finished it either; sure, I managed to feed myself and my children and I suppose I remembered to take care of my personal hygiene (oh wait, my immediate family would make sure I did so), but everything else was pretty much neglected for the length of time I was in Appelt’s world.

Good thing, then, that I was blog-breaking when I stumbled into The Underneath, released by Atheneum in May.

I’m feeling mighty daunted, too, at the notion of trying to describe the book to you. Or finding the words to describe how enchanting the writing is or how expertly the story is constructed. And not everyone will agree with that latter statement; the School Library Journal review, describing the book as Southern Gothic, wrote “the constant shift of focus from one story line to the next is distracting and often leads to lost threads.” I didn’t lose any threads while reading, but, hey, to each his own. As Betsy put it well (I know I keep quoting her, but it’s no mystery that I adore her reviews), “{b}ound to be one of those books that people either hate or love, I’m inclined to like it very very much. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t weird, man. Really freaky deaky weird.” So, there you have it: A book people will either love or hate. Hmm . . . Perhaps. But put me in the former category. And with bells on.

When the book opens, we meet—in a “piney woods forest in far East Texas”—a calico cat who has been abandoned on the side of the road: “There is nothing lonelier than a cat who has been loved, at least for a while, and then abandoned . . .” Eventually, she finds shelter with an old hound dog named Ranger. “For cats, a hound is a natural enemy. This is the order of things. Yet how could the calico cat be afraid of a hound who sang, whose notes filled the air with so much longing?” Ranger lives under the home of Gar-Face, chained to the porch (a dangerous home, the cat immediately senses. “Wrong was everywhere.”) Gar-Face, the cat discovers, is abusive. Spiteful. Evil. This is a man who has been given no love in his life (we get a brief glimpse into his childhood.) His sole purpose in keeping the dog, whom he believes betrayed him years ago? As potential alligator bait perhaps (all animals serve this purpose for Gar-Face) — but also as a reminder to never trust a living soul. Yes, broken-faced Gar-Face, determined to catch the hundred-foot-long alligator that slinks in the bayou (the Alligator King), is pretty much evil incarnate.

The calico cat gives birth to twin kittens — Puck and Sabine. The hound, the calico, and the kittens form a loving, makeshift family, the elders constantly telling the young ones to remain in the safety underneath the porch, never to venture out. One day, as curious wee ones will do, Puck slinks out to bask in the sunlight, breaking his promise to his mother. “Bones, fur, milk, curiosity. That is what cats are made of.” Trouble ensues. Let’s just say Gar-Face is happy to finally have some alligator bait.

“Meanwhile, deep beneath the red dirt, held tightly in the grip of {an} old tree’s roots, something has come loose. A large jar buried centuries ago.” This plot thread is one full of deep magic and mystery (we’re talking shape-shifting and ancient Native American mysticism). There is a creature trapped inside, deep in the heart of the Texas bayou near a creek called The Little Sorrowful. “For a thousand years she has slipped in and out of her deep, deep sleep, stirred in her pitch-black prison beneath the dying pine. Sssssooooonnnn, she whispered into the deep and solemn dark, my time will come. Then she closed her eyes and returned to sleep.” And what is this creature’s connection to the Alligator King? That’s for you to find out, too.

And that’s all I’ll say on that plot thread, ’cause OF COURSE I want you to read this book.

Finally, there are the Caddo people, mainly Night Song, her husband Hawk Man, and their daughter, who also have a connection to the creature filling up the ancient jar in the dying pine tree with steam — steam from her hissing and her repeated refrain: “Ssssssssstttttt . . . A price will be paid . . . There’s a prrriiicce . . . My time is coming. Ssssoooonnn!” The Caddo lived a thousand years ago, “made their home along this very creek, this salty creek . . . The Caddo can be found in the memories of trees.”

It’s these plot threads that Appelt seamlessly weaves into this tale of mystery, betrayal, redemption, love, family, honor, magic, memory, suspense, and so much more — the prose so beautiful it will . . . well, McGhee is right: You’ll have to stop and catch your breath sometimes. Appelt uses vivid imagery and striking symbolism—as well as pleasing repetition—to bring to life a world of trees who keep legends and who can send messages (“trees are the keepers of stories,” Appelt writes); hummingbirds as emissaries of death; millennia-old, shape-shifting half-human and half-serpent beasts of the night; a neglected, abused dog mustering up all the strength he has to sing a lullaby to his calico kittens, for whom he’d give his life; magical creatures of flight alongside mystical water folk who swim the ancient seas; haints (very real haints and the possibility of haints); the almost painful yearning for respect; bolts of lightning that break open the past; notions of family (what it means to be a wife, a sister, a mother, a grandmother); love and unabated evil; the purrs of cats that serve as prayers (“for in {a purr} lies a whole mixture of gratitude and longing, the twin ingredients of every prayer”); and patterns. Yes, all the gripping patterns of life:

The world is made of patterns. The rings of a tree. The raindrops on the dusty ground. The path the sun follows from morning to dusk.

And following the patterns in Appelt’s own writing in this book, her use of repetition and symbolism that come full-circle in the most satisfying ways, makes for a mesmerizing read. I’m not even a novelist, but I somehow know what McGhee must have meant when she said this book reminds her why she wanted to be a writer. Appelt has a way of writing about the cotton mouth of a snake that pretty much has taken care of my nightmares for the next five years.

And the setting . . . “this great expanse of wetlands, of swamps and bayous, of slow-moving turtles and giant armadillos.” This book is a study in perfection — utter perfection — when it comes to establishing setting firmly in the mind of your reader. How Appelt manages to infuse the “sluggish bayou,” this swampy kingdom and its surrounding woods, including the “tumbling creeks,” with both great malice (“Wrong was everywhere. Nesting in the morning air. Settling on their arms. Inching up their backs”) and glimmering hope is a wonder. And the trees! THE TREES! The old loblolly pines beside the creek, the tupelo trees, the elms and blackjacks and shady chestnuts, the sweet gums, the sycamores, the tallow and alder. Oh, I could go on.

Three quick notes, as I’ve written a novella here:

  1. I found the book’s climax, a powerful moment of redeption for one of the main characters, sublime and quite moving. I wasn’t sure how Appelt was going to pull it off, but jump back, she did it. And did it flawlessly, I think.
  2. Questions of audience will pop up, no doubt. Sure, this is intense stuff; don’t read it to those so young that the beauty of Appelt’s imagery and the book’s heavy themes will fly right over their heads. Otherwise . . . well, I hate the age-range game. This is for anyone who appreciates a great story, a multi-layered read that rewards on just about every level. This is for anyone who appreciates an impressive turn-of-phrase — at turns, eerie, terrifying, beautiful. (I have a particular soft spot for Monica Edinger’s review, as she closes it with “just writing this makes me get all hyperbolic. Sorry!” Yeah, this book will do that to you.)
  3. David Small’s drawings grace this novel. He knows exactly when to let the spotlight shine on Appelt’s writing and when to let his reverent pencil illustrations complement dramatic moments — while never overpowering.

With this, Appelt’s debut novel (though she’s got many picture books under her belt), we meet a writer of true distinction. I can hardly wait to see what she brings us next.

* * * * * * *

If anyone’s made it this far, happy birthday to The One. The Very Only. Maurice Sendak . . . May we each celebrate today by reading a Sendak creation to the nearest child. Wahoo!

14 comments to “Mystery, Magic, and Memory in the Texas Bayou”

  1. Fabulously put. I tend to think this book would work beautifully for any kid old enough for those other great animal stories, Charlotte’s Web, Red Fern Grows, etc. It’s complex, but I suspect complex in a way with lots of kid appeal.

  2. Wow, you have me totally intrigued with your mesmerizing review. Going on my must read list right now.

  3. I really loved this book, but was at a loss on how to do it justice in a review 🙂 Yours was so great it was just a pleasure to read!

  4. I’ve heard much about this one and it sounds oh so bleak and awful to me. Yet you have me half-persuaded to give it a go nonetheless.

  5. So *that’s* what you were doing with your blog break. 🙂

    I am so going to give Pierre to the next child who happens by the children’s reference desk….

  6. Thanks, all. Kelly, I promise it’s not all bleaky bleakness. The book’s conclusion (and even the climax) is so beautiful that if it doesn’t renew your faith in goodness, I don’t know what will.

    Adrienne, you know I’m all for Pierre-pushers. I think Sendak’s 80 yrs old today. Wow.

  7. I, too, finished reading The UNderneath in one day. I breezed thrugh the bathroom cleaning and we ordered dinner out. It is fabulously rich in descriptive detail and the suspense doesn;t stop. I disagree with the School Library Journal. The switch in focus, topic, characters dos not lead to lose threads, it keeps you on the edge of your seat turning pages until the threads come together. My school library wull have two copies this fall, and I will be reading aloud to my sixth grades. It ia a terrific blend of genre elements for 5th graders on up.

  8. please excuse my typos in the above/previous entry.

  9. Hi, Donna. Yup, I’m with you on wondering what the hey School Library Journal meant by that.

    And good point about the mix in genre elements. And, yes, I think that suspense is what made the book unputdownable for me.

    Thanks for commenting!

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  11. this is the very best book everrrr it is the bomb it is mysirious and magical it is fun and adventurious read itttttttttttttttt!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  14. […] impressive debut novel (published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers in May and reviewed here at 7-Imp). The novel—which tells the story of an old hound, a calico cat, two kittens, the […]

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