Posted by: Lizzie Ross | April 27, 2010

How to wait for non-solitude

The Underneath, Kathi Appelt (2008), Atheneum, 311 pp.

I wonder if other reviewers have noticed the stylistic similarities to Gertrude Stein’s writing in this book. And I mean that as a compliment. In this story of love, betrayal, hatred, vengeance, loneliness, and waiting waiting waiting, Appelt creates the verbal equivalent of two mirrors facing each other and casting off multiple images that seem to reduplicate into the infinite distance.

In brief chapters that read like poems, Appelt creates two worlds here. One is in pre-Columbian western Louisiana/eastern Texas. Bayou country, with gators, snakes, big cats, birds, and trees, where the friendly Caddo have settled. Into this world of a thousand years ago comes a giant snake, nursing resentments against past abandonments.

The second world is still in that bayou, but now, where an abused boy grows into a dangerous man, and a bloodhound and three cats have to battle him to secure their own safety. These animals talk, but minimally, and not in a cute, animated cartoon style. The mother cat warns her kittens to stay under the porch (the Underneath of the title), a gator chuckles to himself as he waits for a hunter to make a mistake, the giant snake calls to her runaway daughter, “Come to me my lovely daughter,” while circling birds call out “Beware.”

The Steinian touches come in Appelt’s lovely repetitive language. It’s chant-like, recursive, building slowly like a helix.

In an instant Night Song remembered her childhood, remembered swimming in the silted bayous, sunning on the back of the old alligator, hunting for crawdads in their underwater caves. She remembered those nights, coiled in the top branches of the trees, remembered the stars blinking at her, remembered.

The repetition within this paragraph echoes the repetition within the book–how many times does Appelt tell of the giant snake’s abandonment and subsequent anger? of how the bloodhound was wounded? of how the dangerous man became dangerous? Yet, as in this paragraph, each iteration adds just a bit more, tweaking the event just slightly, sharpening our focus so that we see a little more of what Appelt is showing us.

Over and over, she lists varieties of trees, birds, fish, wild cats, snakes–until Nature herself is like a Greek Chorus, bringing us back to the real world. Willows, yaupons, sycamores, cypresses, pines. Panthers, jaguars, ocelots. Rattlers, garters, massasaugas, moccasins. We read these and other names again and again and begin to feel the closeness of the bayou, the heaviness of the atmosphere, the deep hidden nature of life there.

My favorite line, about the bloodhound: “He didn’t know that he needed to not be so solitary until at last he wasn’t.” This so perfectly resembles life. We notice a sound only once it has stopped, recognize earlier states of boredom because our lives are full now, understand what we really need only when it is finally in our hands.

So, get this book into your own hands, to learn what you’ve been missing.

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