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As you may recall, I loved Appelt's Keeper enough to be totally inarticulate about it. The Underneath is her earlier children's/YA novel (she appears to have also written many picture books and a memoir), and it's also very, very good, although I was not quite as blown away.

Mind you, I'm glad that I read this one second even though I like it marginally less, because the cover and flap and so on make this look like exactly the kind of book I do not pick up and did not pick up as a kid. In fact, it looks like the kind of book I usually run away from screaming, because it's a book partly about animals in a bad situation involving a neglectful and abusive human, and most books of that sort place very highly in the Most Depressing Book Ever Written contest.

This one is not a light book. It probably would have traumatized me as a child. There is a lot of betrayal going around in it, there is death, there are things that just do not work out. But as an adult, I'm very impressed by it, because it doesn't depress me now as it would have then-- it has moments of light in all the right places, and it's well-crafted in a way that I find inherently joyful.

One thread of the story centers around the old bloodhound, Ranger, who has spent years chained to the porch of his hateful master, and the calico cat and her kittens who befriend him and make him into family. One thread is that master's hunt for the biggest of all alligators, somewhere in the East Texas bayou they all live in. And one is about a thing who has many names, but primarily Grandmother Mocassin, who is snake and more than snake, still resonating from a set of betrayals more than a thousand years old.

Appelt is good at her animals, who have slightly more intelligence than real animals, but do not have the problem-solving skills and reasoning capacity of humans. It feels realistic when they can't come up with solutions for things most people would figure out, but it also feels realistic when the bloodhound sings the blues: that's a fine line right there, and she walks it.

The other thing this does that impressed me is that there's a level of myth, and a level of action on a personal and domestic level, and the book manages to have all the characters, magical or natural, work on both levels. You can see the lines of the overarching story and the way it will crystallize into legend just as well with the dog and cats as with Grandmother Moccasin; you can see the level of practicality just as well with her as with the dog and cats.

The only reason I didn't like this quite as well is that it is less impossibly delicate and evanescent than Keeper, which is reasonable considering the subject matter, and also the subject matter is less interesting to me personally. Which is to say, it's probably me, and this is a very good book.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Author by way of [personal profile] janni; thank you.

I am having great difficulty describing this book. It is very hard to pin down. There are books that do not want to be pinned down, criticized, explained, or even sometimes discussed, because they are so subtle and delicate that anything you say about them feels, in some way, like a fundamental misrepresentation. You hear yourself say 'well, it's a kid's book', and then stop there because there are strands of the book that are clearly designed to be the sort of thing that works into a kid's hindbrain unnoticed but delights an adult reader or re-reader. You can say 'it's kind of about mermaids', except that mermaids specifically, as one standardly thinks of them, are evoked in this book by absence and allusion and things that are similar and things that aren't. You can say 'it's a fantasy novel', except that 'fantasy novel about mermaids' is going to lead readers to expect one sort of thing, and this is not that thing at all, at all, or if it is then only sideways.

Nothing I say about this book is true. It's always more complicated.

All right, one thing I can say clearly: this is a book that gives good ocean. It's as good ocean as the best ocean books I know, which are Jane Yolen's Neptune Rising and the Brittany section of Possession (which latter specific book-section I also find myself comparing this to in about sixty-three other directions, a very odd thing to say about a kid's book set in East Texas but I cannot help it).

Back to uncertainties.

This is a book where Keeper, who is ten, lives with Signe, who is not her mother, and their neighbors/family and animals on a beach in East Texas. Keeper's mother is not present because she was a mermaid. Keeper knows that. They go along pretty well, mostly, one kid, two dogs, one cat (well... hm. I told you things I said about this book would not be true), a seagull with a broken wing, a surf shop run out of a school bus and gumbo served to everybody as a family tradition on the night of the blue moon. Until Keeper manages to have the sort of day you can only have at ten, where unintentionally you genuinely ruin many, many of the things that are extremely important to the grownups around you and know how bad it is but not how to fix it; she decides to do something drastic and powerful, which is indeed drastic, but not the way she intended it.

I look back at that entire paragraph and I want to throw it out because the words are accurate but it leaves out all the everything significant.

Oh hell. Just read the thing. There are some books that don't want to be written about. This one was brilliant, in a very quiet manner.

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