Felice Holman’s Slake’s Limbo (1974)
Aladdin Books, 1986

The idea of people living underground (you know, some call them “mole people”, those making homes and living out their lives in storm drains and subway networks, underground sections of major cities) has fascinated me since I first heard of the idea in my early 20s. (Actually, underground appeals to me anyway: I’ll choose a cave over a mountain any day.)

And then I came across a list that suggested 21 books everybody should read before they turn 21 and Felice Holman’s was one of the few that I hadn’t read (many years later, so the need was that much more urgent), which considers the life of 13-year-old Aremis Slake when he “goes underground”, so that was one reading gap I wanted to fill right away.

The reasons Slake goes underground are foggy. “Well, that it is in the past. But for the purpose of this chronicle of events, it is simplest and most practical and even sufficient to believe that Slake was born an orphan at the age of thirteen, small, nearsighted, dreaming, bruised, an outlander in the city of his birth (and in the world), a lad of shifting fitful faith with a token in his pocket.”

Although in some ways, his reasons are very specific, very clear; he is in danger and so he jumps into the subway tunnel, and he runs further in to escape, and he stumbles into a world he hadn’t known existed. Unlike some exploration of this subject in the media though, Slake’s experience is one of isolation below ground. He makes a space for himself there, but he does not find a community there.

Nonetheless, he does make contact with people beyond his underground home, first out of necessity, although he remains wary and cautious. “He knew the real terrors were not man-eating giants, mean dwarfs, or wicked witches, but big tough fellows on his block or in his class, sometimes carrying small sharp knives in their shoes, always having heavy knuckled fists like snowballs packed with stones. The only one of the stories at school that had really frightened Slake was about children lost in the woods and starving, because there was one thing Slake knew — he knew truth. He knew fact from fiction.”

Some have debated whether these underground communities really exist, and that does bring a new layer of irony to Slake’s sense of recognizing the truth inside fiction. But there is no debate about the existence of homelessness in major cities (although debates about causes and solutions rage on). On that level alone, Slake’s story is relevant and informative.

The story does show its age in some ways (people read newspapers daily, don’t Twitter) but the style is straight-forward and not overly sentimentalized. If I’d read it before I was 21, I would have put it on the shelf next to Richard Peck’s Secrets of the Shopping Mall (1980) and E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1968).

How about you? Filling any gaps in your reading lists lately?
If you had to go underground right now, what book that you’re reading today would make the trip with you?