American Fantasy: The Underneath

Distinguished American Fantasy

10/15/2008 update: The Underneath has been nominated for a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature! Winners will be announced on November 19,


There has been much discussion of The Underneath by Kathi Appelt as a possible candidate for the Newbery Award this year. I believe it’s a strong candidate because it is a distinguished contribution to American literature, specifically, it is an excellent example of American fantasy.

In the days of Harry Potter and since, we’ve seen a plethora of British fantasy imports and I’ve longed for a truly American fantasy. At one point, I was so tired of British fantasies that when I picked up a book, I looked first at the flap copy and immediately put the book down if the author was British; of course, I missed too many good books that way, but still, I’ve longed for good American fantasy. And even books by American authors tended to draw upon British or European mythologies.

If you think of American fantasy, you must think of these stories draw upon the landscape and culture of America in unique – and distinguished – ways.

  • The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy begins in Kansas and is swept away by a tornado to a place where there are wizards who fly hot-air balloons and scarecrows who want a heart.
  • Charlotte’s Web. Charlotte and Wilbur live on the quintessential American farm, where the practicalities of farm life means that Pa almost kills Wilbur in the opening scene because Wilbur is a runt; he’s saved only by the love of Fern and the skills of a blood-thirsty spider.
  • Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Of course, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is about utopias that American science might be able to create, but is set again on a farm.
  • Wizard of the Earthsea. Earthsea, in many ways, resembled the islands of the Pacific Northwest, and LeGuin combines a variety of spiritual and psychological influences to create the culture of the Wizards.

American Culture in The Underneath

Consider the American referents in The Underneath:

  • Villain. Gar-Face, the villain is a victim of child abuse and as such, he retreats from society to the swamps, where he lives by hunting and selling pelts. We can find shades of this pitiable, but cruel villain in Daniel Boone, Jeremiah Johnson, every pioneer story, and, of course, the Cajun culture which adopted the swamps as its home. The fact that he’s more sharply drawn, seems more real, makes his cruelty seem harsher than Cruella deVille, for example. But it doesn’t make it any less American.
  • Dogs. American pioneer stories such as Old Yeller and The Dog Named Kitty do not wince from realities of the dangers faced in the wild. In Phyllis Reynods Naylor’s book, Shioh, we see cruelty to dogs; again, Appelt just pushes this a tiny step farther.
  • Friendship between Dog and Cat. This is the enduring idea from the Bible that “the Wolf also shall dwell with the Lamb.” (Is. 11:6) and we see it in Kirby Larson and Mary Nethery’s new book, Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina.
  • Snakes. I grew up in the mountains north of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where you must be wary of diamondback rattlers. Transplanted to Arkansas, I’ve learned to be equally wary of cottonmouths, copperheads and timber rattlers. Besides the Biblical story of the snake in the Garden of Eden, snake stories abound throughout America, though, perhaps not with the same pervasiveness as dog stories. Still, the decision to include Grandmother Cottonmouth is surely grounded in the American culture.

I could go on, but that’s enough to establish that most of the referents are American. No fairies, and the only wizard is a hot-air balloonist who uses smoke and mirrors, not real magic.

Objection to The Underneath: Using Native Mythology

Inappropriately Appropriating Native Mythology.One objection to The Underneath comes from Nina Lindsey on the Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog. This posting, in fact, inspired me to think about and respond to some objections.

Lindsey says,

“I wonder: IS Appelt’s “mythology” in The Underneath based in a real people’s oral history, and if so, is it represented accurately and appropriately for the intended audience.”

As a writer myself, I find this objection to be frustrating. Are you saying that writers can never use mythologies, unless they are accurately presented? (I’m assuming the appropriate for the intended audience, for now). By that reasoning, do you disqualify any British fantasy that draws upon the Druid or Celtic myths unless it is accurately presented? Unless I am writing a non-fiction article about a specific Native American culture, I make no special effort to remain accurate to a myth, from whatever source. Fiction is, well, fiction. It’s not true and as an author, am I not allowed to embellish, change, transmute to fit the story I want to tell?

Growing up in New Mexico, I attended a rural school which bused students from as far away as 50 miles; we rode the bus an hour each way. We had Apaches from the Apache reservation, Navajos from the Navajo reservation, and many Hispanics. My father was fluent in both Spanish and Navajo. My aunt and uncle ran one of the trading posts on the Navajo reservation. As an adult, I’ve bolstered this early exposure to these cultures with cultural readings. When I try to write American fantasy, I know that this is the cultural milieu from which I must draw; yet, I also know that I can never include elements from that milieu with complete cultural accuracy. It will be accurate to my life, to my childhood, to my biases, to my culture as an American growing up in a rich and diverse community. Surely, Appelt, as a Texan has an equally rich and diverse community and culture that she draws upon. Would you disqualify her story because it’s not “accurate”? Accurate by what standards?

American fantasy, if it is to become a strong genre, must be allowed to draw upon the culture we find around us. Let’s encourage the preservation of verbatim Native American legends, stories, cultural traditions, surely a worthy endeavor. But when an American writer finds themes, characters, plots, or ideas for a story, that’s not enough; s/he needs a milieu, a backstory. Think of Tolkein’s many years inventing the backstory of The Lord of the Rings which is presented in the Silmarillion. We could do what he did and spend many years creating a milieu, or we can reach into our culture and draw elements to fit together within the context of the story we want to tell.

If the American landscape is empty, or worse, denied to writers, then what do we draw upon to write uniquely American stories? We are left with urban fantasies. Certainly Scott Westerfield’s technological dystopias of Uglies, Pretties, Specials and Extras, are good reading, but they represent only a portion of what American fantasy can and should be. Writers need to draw upon the rich, diverse heritage to write American stories in the fantasy genre.

Objections to The Underneath: Violence

A second objection to The Underneath comes from the violence. In one of the comments on Lindsey’s post, Walter Mayes says,

“I maintain that it is the brilliance of Appelt’s writing that pushes the limit for many, portraying the painful lives of the animals so heartrendingly that it makes the reading experience unthinkable for many animal lovers. If it did not do the job of telling the story so well, the content would not be an issue to many.”

But we Americans know about animal stories that make use cry:
We weep when Charlotte dies, the natural death of all spiders.
We weep when Travis must put down Old Yeller after he’s been bit by a rabid wolf.
We weep when Kitty dies tragically at the end of A Dog Named Kitty.
We weep when the calico cat is drowned by Gar-Face; we feel Gar-Face’s kick and suffer hunger and thirst with Ranger.

But surely, even this draws upon the American culture; pioneer life was practical and hard decisions meant that runt pigs were killed, unwanted litters of kittens were drowned, and a kid could never protect a dog against a rabid wolf, but a dog might – by making the supreme sacrifice – protect the boy from the wolf. The ties between man and animal is strong and surely, these stories strengthen the ties.

These aren’t always easy stories and of course, they aren’t for every child. But there are children who will read this story and understand it, without being destroyed by it. By itself, violence doesn’t seem to disqualify this story from consideration.

Celebrate American Fantasy

I, for one, find this story to be a refreshingly American fantasy story, rooted and grounded in American literature, culture and mythology. May the genre of American fantasy rise to take the place of the British imports!

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