I spent the first 3/4 of this novel cautiously enjoying it and being baffled by its designation as a Newbery honor book this year, since the Newbery is an award for children’s literature. I just couldn’t imagine reading this book myself as a child, and I can’t imagine my own ultrasensitive children reading it before they are older than the 10 & up age designation given by the publisher.
That is not to say that it is poorly written. Actually, it is beautifully written, with nuances and prose patterns that elevate the story in places to the status of myth or legend . And it is not all parts of this multi-faceted story that I found problematic or difficult–actually, it was only the part about Grandmother Mocassin, the shapeshifting snake whose own bitterness and unforgiveness have locked her in a pottery jar of a prison for 1000 years. Well, that and the hatefilled Gar Face, who drowns one cat out of pure meanness, attemps to drown two more, and repeatedly brutalizes his own hunting dog. The main story, though, the one that occurs in the present, is one that is appealing and child-like. It is the story of an old, worn out, crippled hunting dog, and a mama cat and her babies who find shelter and make an unlikely family in the Underneath with him. The dog, Ranger, loves his cat family, and he goes to great lengths to save them from the fate that Gar Face designs for them. It has a happy ending, though, like all good children’s literature should. Appelt’s weaving together of two disparate stories is what made me really like this story in the end. Once the ancient story was finally relegated to the past and the pace of the present story picked up, I could be comfortable with the wole thing and enjoy it. (Don’t mind me, really–I’m kind of funny about some types of literature, myths and legends being one of them.)
Appelt’s prose is thoughtful, poignant, and just all-around lovely. Here are a few of my favorite snippets:
It’s a fact that kittens are hard to manage. And these two, growing sleek and nimble, were no different. There is also that whole thing about curiosity. Anyone who has ever known a cat knows that they are filled up with it.
Bones, fur, milk, curiosity. That is what cats are made of. (71)
The calico cat looked hard at her beautiful baby, her boy kitten. And right there, tucked beside him in the dark burlap bag, she loved him as hard as she could, loved him so much that her heart nearly burst. “You are the son I dreamed of,” she told him. “I never wanted any other son but you.” She licked him on the top of his head, right on the crescent moon. (76)
The last 1/4 of the book rivals my all-time favorite animal story, Where the Red Fern Grows, as a picture of animal devotion and selfless love. I give this one my “highly recommended” designation, but with the caveat that it might be difficult for some sensitive children to read.
I read this book for the Semicolon Book Club. It was the May selection, and I actually finished it in May, but I’m just now getting around to putting my thoughts together about it. Sherry’s review is more thorough than mine, and she links some other reviews in it. I also found this interview with Kathi Appelt (and you know how I love an author interview) in the comments on Sherry’s review.