From School Library Journal
Grade 4–8—Appelt brings Southern Gothic to the middle grade set. Three separate but eventually entwined stories are told piecemeal. There is the tale of an abandoned, pregnant calico cat who finds shelter and friendship with the bloodhound, Ranger. He is the abused and neglected pet of Gar Face, a broken-jawed recluse who lives in the Texas bayou, where he fled 25 years previously to escape an abusive father. And finally there is the story of Grandmother Moccasin, a shape-shifting water snake who has lain dormant in a jar for a thousand years, buried beneath a loblolly pine tree. The threads are brought together when Puck, one of the newborn kittens, breaks the rule of straying from the safety of The Underneath, the sliver of space beneath Gar Face's porch where Ranger is chained and the cats live. The pace of this book is meandering, and there is a clear effort by the dominant third-person narrator to create a lyrical, ancient tone. However, the constant shift of focus from one story line to the next is distracting and often leads to lost threads. Small's black-and-white illustrations add a certain languid moodiness to the text. Themes of betrayal, hope, and love are reflected in the three stories, but this is a leisurely, often discouraging journey to what is ultimately an appropriate ending.—Kara Schaff Dean, Walpole Public Library, MA
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*Starred Review* Appelt’s impressive novel (her first) entails animals in crisis—a topic of enduring popularity. But the author, whose path from picture books to fantasy is discussed in the Story behind the Story, breathes new life into the sentient-animals premise, introducing strong currents of magic realism into a tale as rich and complex as “the gumbo-like waters of the bayous.” Chained and starved by cruel trapper Gar Face, lonely hound Ranger finds companions in a stray cat and her two kittens. When Mother Cat falls victim to Gar Face’s abuse, the surviving animals, especially sensitive kitten Puck, struggle to keep their makeshift family together. The animals’ caring, generous bonds juxtapose with the smothering love of an ancient shape-shifter in a moving parallel story. Joining Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting as a rare example of youth fantasy with strong American underpinnings, Appelt’s novel folds in specific traditions of the Caddo peoples of east Texas, and casts the bayous as a kind of enchanted forest laden with spirits and benign, organic presences. Some readers may struggle with Appelt’s repeated phrases and poetic fragments, and wish the connections and conflicts in the story came to a faster boil. But most children will be pulled forward by the vulnerable pets’ survival adventure and by Small’s occasional, down-to-earth drawings, created with fluid lines that are a perfect match for the book’s saturated setting and Appelt’s ebbing, flowing lyricism. Grades 4-8. --Jennifer Mattson