Beneath by Roland Smith

For more 2018 Caudill reviews and teacher resources, click here.

Grades 4-8. Beneath is a middle-grade adventure fiction novel. Pat’s older brother Coop does not care about anything other than exploring underground, tap dancing, and Pat himself. He is an odd bird but Pat loves him anyways. The parents? Not so much. The parents don’t seem to care that they have kids at all. When Coop gets into a fight with his parents about going to college, Coop runs away. Pat’s parents end up getting divorced and being nonchalant that Coop is gone. Pat is worried, though.

One year after Coop’s disappearance, Pat receives a mailed package at school containing a voice recorder and a message from Coop. Pat decides to ditch out on Christmas break with his mom, tricks his parents into not knowing he’s gone, and follows Coop to New York City to look for him. He stakes out the PO Box his brother’s letters were coming from and discovers a network of “homeless” people that lead him to a group called the Community that live in the tunnels underneath NYC.

There are a couple of problems. The Community aren’t really excited about Pat being there. Coop has already left them to go into the Deep, which is forbidden by the Community and dangerous. A mysterious girl shows up at the Community and secretly tells Pat that his brother is in trouble and Pat has to follow her to rescue him. And Pat is claustrophobic. Crawling through tunnels like an inch worm isn’t exactly his strong suit. Pat keeps his headphones in and listens to Coop’s messages to distract him from the trip. This is how we learn more about Coop and what he’s doing down here.

The format of the book is pretty cool. We read both Pat’s journal notes about what is happening with Pat and listen to Cooper’s recordings about what has already happened to Coop. The two stories converge with a quickening and suspenseful climax and a plot twist to amp up the pace. The story feels like an adventure novel and, if you can get over the initial background information, moves pretty quickly to keep readers engaged. This is definitely an action-oriented and not a character-centered book. The main purpose of all the characters was to rescue or prevent rescue.

Warning: You do have to suspend a lot of reality. How would Pat even trick his family into leaving him alone? How does a cult so suddenly let two kids in? How can you travel thousands of feet into the ground underneath NYC and have rivers and electricity underneath? Does someone with claustrophobia suddenly get better? (This was supposed to be a major obstacle and the reason for the backstory, but didn’t really seem to matter.) Why does some random weird kid like wearing tap shoes so much and why does it really matter? (A lot of Smith’s symbolism falls flat, and he could have made other great symbols in the story and didn’t.) How can a kid that met an FBI agent once be really good friends with them? Is a pair of sunglasses really a sufficient disguise? If the parents are so lame, why mention them in the first place?

Overall, this was an entertaining book and got suspenseful, but it wasn’t the best. I would have liked them to cut the beginning and the parents and get into more of the psychological issues of encountering and/or leaving a cult.

Read-alikes: Tunnels (Roland Smith), Journey to the Center of the Earth (Jules Verne), Above (Beneath #2, Roland Smith). You could also recommend other adventures that take place underground, involve cults, or have brothers rescuing each other (like Hobbs’s books). I think fans of Masterminds (Korman) would like this book as well.