Monday, November 24, 2008

voice of a myth-The Underneath

It was such a pleasure to read "The Underneath," by Kathi Appelt. It would be hard to suggest which age group it might best appeal to, perhaps middle grade, but high school, or younger child, or adult, would find lots of appeal, too. For background structure, it recalls ancient tales of mermaids, and selkies (Celtic), ondines (German), and lamia, which some myths refer to as half-woman, half-serpent. In Underneath, it is a version of the lamia, as a 1000-yr. old cottonmouth snake, a giant water moccasin, which had once assumed the form of a woman, but after being betrayed by a human male, had reverted to her snake form. In Appelt's telling, once the myth creature reverts to its animal form, it can never change back to human. Grandmother moccasin has a sinister presence throughout the story, as she lies imprisoned in a clay jar buried beneath the roots of a lolbolly pine in the swamps of East Texas. A thousand years before, a man had taken her lamia daughter, Night Song, from her, and there was a price to be paid. Sssssss. Once she was free.

Another character in the story had been an evil young boy, perhaps bent that way by a vicious, abusive father, and who is now a lonely, fearfully evil man, called Gar Face, named after a vicious, ugly fish who lives in the swamp waters. Gar Face figures prominently in the story, but more so does his chained-up, abused bloodhound, called Ranger, and the two kittens, Sabine and Puck. Their mother, a calico cat, had sought refuge beneath Gar Face's cabin, trusting Ranger, and gave birth there to her two kittens. The story of the kittens growing up, their games, learning to hunt, but never daring to venture out in sight of Gar Face, is artfully told. Relating their playing and hunting strategies to their big cat ancestors is part of the marvel. Eventually, Gar Face discovers and captures Puck, and also his mother, when she goes to Puck's defense. Gar Face ties them in a sack and throws them into a river. Puck escapes, and the story becomes his struggle to survive in the swamp, and whether he will find his way home to Ranger and Sabine. In the parallel story, we discover in intermittent small chapters how Grandmother moccasin lost her daughter, Night Song, to another magical creature, Hawk Man, after they both had crossed into their human natures, and how they came to have a daughter. Who, of course, is the granddaughter of Grandmother moccasin--and grandmother knows of her and seeks her.

How the path of the characters intertwine and ultimately cross makes for an epic story.

The language of the story provides a good part of the enjoyment; I can imagine myself reading the suspenseful cadences to my own granddaughter, now grown, when we shared evening story times in my small, coastal cabin:

"Here then is a hard-edged bitter boy become a man known as Gar Face...Do not cross his angry path. Do not."

"Do not go into that land between the Bayou Tartine and the little sister, Petite Tartine. Do not step into that shivery place. Do not let it gobble you up. Stay away from the Tartine Sisters."

"Grandmother is waking up. 'Ssssoooooonnnnn,' she says, 'my time is coming. Sssssoooonnnn...' Do not look into that mouth of cotton. Do not."

Sunday, November 2, 2008

disreputable history and art

This time of year seems to invite more reading than writing, and some watercolor painting, as appears here. Most of my reading has been in short stories, but also a few YA, and some Indian-American, and Asian novels. I've spent only small amounts of time revising my earlier short stories, and hope to get a couple of them in shape for submitting in the coming months.

I recently finished "The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks," by E. Lockhart, a YA novel. I've always been attracted to stories with a prep-school setting, ever since the powerful experience of reading, as a young boy, "Tom Brown's School Days," by Thomas Hughes. The Disreputable History has nowhere near the tension and drama of Tom Brown, but it has some nice writing, character development, and harmless, if not sophomoric, pranks carried out by a males-only, secret society. Frankie, a spunky young woman, newly endowed with a terrific body over the previous summer, falls in love with one of the boys in the society. She manages to penetrate the secrets and inner workings of the society, and uses phony email messages to commandeer their programs.

The story is told generally in third-person omniscient, though at times Lockhart projects the reader into the mind of Frankie in some long passages, so that it seems like a first-person narrative. Frankie, and a less affluent, scholarship student at the school, a friend of Frankie's boyfriend, Matthew (can't remember his name), comprise the better developed characters in the story. Frankie can be maddening to a male reader, this one, anyhow, with her urgent need to know everything Matthew thinks, or the relationship is going nowhere. Still, she's engaging, and inventive. She goes a little overboard on her use of 'neglected positives,' like describing someone as ept, her presumptive opposite of inept. Frankie tells us in several places she's Jewish, which I thought might enrich her character further, but Lockhart leaves it to us to imagine how. I like ethnicity in characters, and sometimes use Irish connections in my writing.
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