If I had finished this book four days earlier, it would have qualified as the best book I read in 2008. For now, it is the best book I have read in 2009– so far, although it will be a daunting task for another book to beat it out. Do not let the cover fool you–The Underneath is not a cutesy story about a group of domesticated animals that overcome adversity while learning about what is most important in life. The Underneath is a dark story about a group of domesticated animals that overcome adversity while learning about what is most important in life.
Appelt’s tale takes place in the bayous around the Texas/Louisiana border, a place whose oppressive, stagnant atmosphere seems to beget oppressive and stagnant circumstances, at least in literature. Oppression and stagnation are prominant as The Underneath begins: An old hound dog has spent years chained up by his cruel owner and bays a sad song that no other creature understands. Meanwhile, a giant Cottonmouth stews in her own anger for a thousand years in a clay pot buried beneath the live oaks. We follow the parallel stories of these two seemingly disparate lives through their upheavals and eventual convergence.
The Underneath may not be for every child, simply because of the cruelty, darkness, and despair, but animal lovers will be riveted by the action, climax, and lyrical prose. I highly recommend this book to children ages 9 and up, but I also recommend it to adults. I will be disappointed if this title does not win the Newbery Award; I will be shocked if it is not nominated.