Diane Prather

Diane Prather

Prather's Pick: 'The Underneath' destined to be a classic

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Diane Prather

Diane Prather's columns appear in the Craig Daily Press and Saturday Morning Press. You can call her at 824-8809.

Every now and then, a book comes along that takes my breath away. That's the case with "The Underneath," a children's novel by Kathi Appelt.

David Small is the artist behind the book's drawings.

This is a powerful book that leaves the reader with a range of emotions. Take the book's beginning sentence, for example: "There is nothing lonelier than a cat who has been loved, at least for awhile, and then abandoned on the side of the road."

That's what happened to the calico cat. So now she wanders through the forest, looking for a home for her soon-to-be-born kittens and herself.

It's the Piney Woods forest in East Texas, where there are so many trees that only pieces of blue sky can be seen above them. The forest's bayous, creeks and small lakes are home to all kinds of snakes, both poisonous and nonpoisonous. Different varieties of turtles live there, too, along with bullfrogs and crawdads.

But it's the alligators that rule the waters, especially the alligators of the Bayou Tartine.

Twenty-five years ago, an old loblolly pine was hit by a bolt of lightning, resulting in a huge gash in the 100-foot tree. Little by little, branches have fallen off the tree, but the trunk still stands.

Under the tree, a large jar that's been held tightly by the roots is starting to come loose. It's a jar made of clay with decorations etched on the side. The jar was meant for storing things such as berries, but for a thousand years it has served as a home for a creature.

As the creature sleeps, she thinks, "Sssssooooonnn, my time will come."

The book's narrator says, "The trees are the keepers of stories." The creature's story is one of them.

One day, the calico cat hears a song. It's a bluesy song about being all alone. It's the baying of a hound dog. So the cat follows the song to a tilted house. The yard is littered with bones and hides. And there, chained to the corner of the back porch, is the dog. It's Ranger.

The calico cat should be afraid, but she walks up to the dog and rubs against his legs. And she decides to stay.

The house belongs to Gar Face, a cruel man with an awful scar on the left side of his face. It came from his father's fist, during a drunken rage, on the very night the lightning struck the loblolly pine.

Gar Face left that night, with his father's rifle, and now he prowls the forest' killing animals. He's especially intrigued with alligators and has discovered the Alligator King, an alligator that's 100 feet long and perhaps 1,000 years old.

The calico cat has her kittens, Puck and Sabine, under the porch, and Ranger says they will all be safe as long as they stay under the porch, in the Underneath. He watches the kittens because if Gar Face finds them the kittens will end up as alligator bait.

And all the while the creature in the jar waits. The Alligator King knows the creature. Sometimes he whispers to her.

So that's the way the book begins. It's packed with suspense, love and sadness. The chapters are short, each with a hook at the end, which keeps a person reading.

I can't say enough about "The Underneath."

It's destined to be a classic.

The novel, for youths ages 10 and older, is Appelt's debut book. It's published by Atheneum Books for Young Children (2008) and costs $16.99 in hardcover. You also can find the book at the Craig branch of the Moffat County Libraries.

You can reach Diane Prather by calling 824-8809 or by writing to her at P.O. Box 415, Craig, CO 81626.

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