Animorphs #17: “The Underground by K.A. Applegate
Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, April 1998
Where Did I Get this Book: own it!
Book Description: What’s tasty, good for you, and only takes sixty seconds to make? Oatmeal. And it’s making the Yeerks more than a little crazy. Now Rachel, the other Animorphs, and Ax have a new weapon against the Yeerks. Sounds good, right?
Plot: Now unlike the last few, I have very clear memories of this book and I think it’s for a pretty basic reason: it absolutely terrified me reading it as a kid. Where battles with aliens were something purely out of fiction and thus not threatening, this book is a perfect example of the more mundane aspects of the Animorphs’ missions and the truly horrifying, easier to comprehend dangers that these missions brought down upon them.
The story starts with mainly Marco and Rachel attempting to convince Jake that the group should be allowed to use their abilities for purely selfish reasons: to attend the opening of new Planet Hollywood in their town. Notably, Lucy Lawless, or Xena herself, would be in attendance. Jake only signs on, however, when he hears that Shaq will also be there. Oh, Jake, and you’re basketball-obsessed heart. Of course, they all go in bird morph. But while there, Rachel notices a man getting ready to commit suicide by jumping out of a skyscraper. She and the group swoop in and just barely manage to glide him to be dropped into the nearby river. There he proceeds to get stuck in the mud on the bottom of the river necessitating Rachel’s morphing dolphin to save him once again. (It should be noted that this is the second cold open for a Rachel book where she saves the life of someone. Last time it was the boy in the crocodile pit.)
Back home, Rachel hears from her mother, who is a lawyer, that the man’s family is looking to have him committed to a clinic: he’s claiming there is an alien parasite called a Yeerk in his head. Rachel and the team know they have to check it out. After flipping a coin, Rachel, Marco, and Jake are chosen to infiltrate the mental hospital in cockroach morph. After a brief run-in with a tarantula (Tobias’s bird powers come in for the save once again), the group makes it in and locates the man, a Mr. Edelman. To speak with him, Rachel demorphs and then poses as a human-morphed Andalite to figure out what is going on. Edelman reveals that the Yeerks have encountered a human food substance that is highly addictive to their species and, after prolonged ingestion, causes the Yeerks to go mad. But with this madness, the Yeerk is also freed of its need to consume Kandrona rays. So now Controllers like Edelman are stuck with a mad Yeerk in their brain that never needs to come out. Edelman is typically in control of his body again, but, as Rachel sees while they are talking, the Yeerk breaks through in brief moments to spew nonsense, thus leading to his family’s questioning his sanity. What’s most surprising, however, is what this addictive substance is: instant maple and ginger flavored oatmeal.
After joining back with the others, the group debates the morality of using an addictive substance (even though it’s just oatmeal, as Marco and Rachel continue to point out in increasingly loud voices). In the end, they decide they can’t ignore an opportunity like this to do massively damage to the Yeerk invasion. Now all they have to do is break into the Yeerk pool once again.
Tobias, of course, knows of an entrance from his days of spying. Together, they all morph fly and attempt to follow a Controller in (this time through a backroom in a McDonalds). Once through the door, however, it becomes clear that the Yeerks have upped their security game. Some type of bio weapon is triggered by the presence of DNA that has not been submitted into the program and they barely manage to escape a fatal gassing. With their typical point of entrance now lost to them, the group needs to get creative. Cassie suggest digging their way in using a mole morph.
What follows is a perfect example of the least glorious aspects of what life as an Animorph would really be like. One by one the group takes turns morphing mole and digging through the earth. They make very slow progress and it takes them a week to get very far at all. Not to mention, each shift is horrifying in its own way: alone, beneath the earth, digging blindly ahead. By the end of the week however, their tunnel hits a bat cave. From there, the group morph bat and plan on heading home to re-think their approach. But on the way out of the bat cave, they sense another exit, once that leads to the Yeerk pool.
But again, the increased Yeerk security kicks in, and flying security bots quickly injure several members of the group, including Rachel who falls into the Yeerk pool itself. She manages to time her demorph to angle herself below one of the piers sticking out over the pool so that she can remain hidden and keep her head above water. She then has to do something she swore never to do again: morph ant. But from her time with the allergy, she remembers that the ant morph did fairly well in liquid. This time as an ant she is able to essentially “walk” on the surface and escape the pool.
Once out, she sees that Ax has been captured and demorphed. Even worse, Visser Three is coming. She manages to find Marco and Cassie, both hiding in sheds around the perimeter. They frantically try to think of a plan, and happen to hear a Controller mention removing “oatmeal contraband” from another person. They reference a storage shed where they have confiscated over 200 pounds of the stuff.
Visser Three arrives and immediately orders that all exits be sealed and everyone be searched systematically. Rachel, Marco, and Cassie frantically come up with a plan to use the oatmeal as a type of bargaining chip. Elephant!Rachel crashes through walls and into the storage shed, where Gorilla!Marco grabs a barrel of the oatmeal, throws it into the Yeerk pool and threatens to blow it up with a Dracon beam, thus infecting hundreds of Yeerks, unless Visser Three lets them all go. Visser Three decides that a few hundred of his compatriots is a price he is willing to pay. Elephant!Rachel thinks to change this equation by charging him and throwing him into the pool as well. Visser Three quickly changes his mind. But as the group begins backing towards one of the exit tunnels, Visser Three begins to morph. At the same time, a team of Hork Bajir charge down the very tunnel they were trying to climb through. Throwing caution to the wind, Rachel shoots the barrel of oatmeal, then aims the Dracon beam at the ceiling and yells to the others to morph mole. Then, not knowing who survived or how long it will take, she slowly digs her way back up to the bat cave (having to stop to hollow out a human-sized hole to not get caught with the two hour limit). One by one they all return.
Lastly, back at home a few days later, Rachel’s mom returns home from work telling a crazy story about how Mr. Edelman escaped from the mental hospital after a “talking grizzly” showed up and told him to run and hide and enjoy what freedom he could make for himself.
Xena, Warriar Princess: Again, we hear a lot about the pressure that Rachel puts on herself to be strong. Part of it is her conviction that she won’t let fear rule her life, a sentiment that we heard Jake discuss just in the last book. But she also confesses to not being able to admit her fear, and to understanding what part she plays for the group.
Everyone in a group has a role to play. At least that’s how it always works out. My role was to say, “Let’s do it. Let’s go. That’s what we came here for.” But I was tired. And I’d had a really, really bad few days digging down to this stupid cave.
So I said, <Let’s do it. That’s what we came here for.> Sometimes it’s hard to get out of a role once you’ve started playing the part.
Her and Jake probably most clearly see the role that they play for the group. The rest definitely have their contributions, but they don’t seem to feel these roles in such a strong (or burdensome) way as Jake and Rachel do. Marco, probably, is the next closest thing, knowing that they count on him to lighten the mood and joke his way through anything.
There are some good moments with Rachel’s home life, with her sisters and mother. There’s also a reference to the fact that her house is still under construction after she halfway destroyed it by accidentally morphing elephant while allergic back in her book.
There are several examples in this book of the pros and cons of Rachel’s tendency to jump without looking. Part of the reason that so many of her books open with her saving people is that she doesn’t question whether it is possible or wise, she just does it. But on the other hand, while in the Yeerk Pool, her first instinct is to simply morph grizzly and attack. It is Marco and Cassie who come up with the plan to use the oatmeal to create a stalemate, obviously a much better idea. But then when Visser Three calls their bluff, Rachel again acts before anyone else, throwing him in the pool. She also blows up the tunnel they’re in. Too much thought about these actions, too much hesitancy about the possible negative outcomes, would have resulted in disaster for the entire group. I really liked seeing the balance of how this inclination of hers was not only a bad thing (as it is often reduced to), but can also be their saving grace when the others might have hesitated.
Our Fearless Leader: During the debate about using the oatmeal, Jake makes a connection to the Civil War and the idea that that war, too, could have been ended sooner if the North had simply compromised and let a few people remain slaves. He also says that he makes all of these decisions by asking himself whether he is ok or not with it happening to Tom.
A Hawk’s Life: Tobias is the first to raise the question about the morality of using the oatmeal. This seems to be in line with his more thoughtful approach to the war. After they thoroughly discuss the matter, he agrees to use it. But as a character, Tobias needs to fully think through any course of action they are about to take, even if, in the end, he will always side with the plan that means bringing more of the fight to the Yeerks.
He’s also the last one to arrive back to the bat cave in the end.
“You scared us to death! Where have you been?” I yelled at him.
<I was worried about you, too, Rachel,> he said, with a smile in his silent voice.
This is why they work; he understands her.
Peace, Love, and Animals: Like in book #9, Cassie is the one to realize that they can use a specific type of animal morph to solve a problem that seems impossible. She came up with the bat morph then, and the mole morph this time.
For a moment no one said anything. Then Cassie said, <Well . . . there is one way.>
<I take it back!> Marco said. <I take it back! I can tell by your tone, Cassie, I really don’t want to know.>
When they’re debating the morality of using the oatmeal against the Yeerks, Cassie confesses to not knowing what is right and wrong anymore. This, more than anything, scares Rachel about how this war is changing them all.
The Comic Relief: Not surprisingly, Marco sides with Rachel immediately about using the oatmeal. If anything, he is even more appalled by the fact that the group is even debating not dealing such a direct hit to the Yeerks. Once again, we see that, of them all, he is the most pragmatic about this fight. Where Rachel is more inclined to go for it simply because she will always choose action, Marco only sees the cost/benefit of a mission. He is also even more exasperated by the fact that the “drug” they are debating is oatmeal.
E.T./Ax Phone Home: Ax saves all of their lives by immediately recognizing the danger of the bio sensor when they first try to infiltrate the Yeerk Pool as flies. He’s also good for some Yeerk biology lessons, but only so much…
<Yes,> Ax said. <Yeerks have mouths. Or what humans would think of as mouths. Actually, if I remember my exo-biology classes, and sadly, I sometimes ->
<Fell asleep,> I said. <Yeah, we know. You didn’t like exo-biology class.>
There’s also a comedic interlude at the mall (of course) where the group watches in horror/awe as Human!Ax consumes not only an entire massive Cinnabon, but the paper plate it was sitting on as well.
Best (?) Body Horror Moment: When they’re breaking into the mental hospital as cockroaches and run into the tarantula, Rachel gets jumped by it. She only escapes when Tobias swoops down and carries it off. Unfortunately, it doesn’t let go of her leg, so it gets ripped off. Even worse, it is implied that Tobias eats the spider…so…did he eat her leg??!
Couples Watch!: Early in the book, Rachel wakes up in the morning to do homework and opens her window for Tobias. Apparently, he comes by most mornings like this. They discuss their upcoming plan to go to the Yeerk Pool and Rachel admits to being afraid. It’s a quiet little scene that really highlights these two’s relationship and how special it is in that Rachel can be open and vulnerable with Tobias about feelings that she never shows to the rest of the group.
If Only Visser Three had Mustache to Twirl: When it is announced that Visser Three is coming to the Yeerk Pool, Rachel runs into a Controller who blatantly makes up an excuse to get the heck out of there. So at this point, even among the Yeerks themselves, it’s pretty clear that Visser Three is batshit (ha!) crazy and it’s best to be elsewhere when he shows up. It’s also no surprise that he pretty quickly decides that sacrificing 500 or so Yeerks to the oatmeal threat is worth it, but then once it’s his own skin on the line, he quickly changes his tune.
Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: That last scene where they are all tunneling back to the surface. Man, it’s just horrifying if you really think about it. Earlier in the book, it was already made clear how terrifying the tunneling was with claustrophobia and being so alone. So here, to crash a tunnel down on yourself, not knowing whether your friends were hurt or killed, and then tunneling ever upwards, for hours, long enough that you need to stop and dig out a hole to morph back to human, still underground, all alone…It definitely freaked me out as a kid and still does now.
What a Terrible Plan, Guys!: While the mole morph is a good idea in theory, I’m not sure how they were thinking this was actually going to work. They all stock up on oatmeal at their homes, but what were they really going to do? Pull down mini bags of it through the tunnel and then try to somehow aim it above the Yeerk Pool and hope that it makes it all the way down? Seems like there are a few pretty big holes in this plan and the only reason they succeed is because first they completely fail at their original plan. This seems to be a pattern.
A more serious quote from when they’re debating the morality of using the oatmeal:
Cassie suddenly laughed. It was a cynical laugh. I didn’t know she was capable of a cynical laugh.
“And all the rights and wrongs, and all the lines between good and evil, just go wafting and waving and swirling around, don’t they?”
And a more fun quote:
“You know,” Jake said in a conversational tone as we waited for Tobias to acquire the bat, “from the point where Edelman said ‘maple and ginger oatmeal,’ I should have known this was going to end stupidly.”
“Instant maple and ginger oatmeal,” Cassie said.
“Battles that involve oatmeal are just never going to end up being historic, you know?” Jake went on. “Gettysburg? No major oatmeal involvement. The Battle of Midway? Neither side used oatmeal. Desert Storm? No oatmeal.”
Scorecard: Yeerks 4, Animorphs 8
I’m giving them both points. Yes, the Animorphs strike a pretty major blow. But it can’t be ignored that the Yeerks have really wised up, what with the bio detectors, the security bots, and Visser Three’s systematic shut down and search of the Yeerk Pool.
Rating: For as wacky as the whole madness-by-oatmeal thing is, this book has some legitimately tense moments. It’s also one of the few books that takes place over almost an entire week (they usually seem to take about a day or two), so it was a nice touch of reality, that many of these missions weren’t glamorous or non-stop action. We continue to see Rachel’s decline as the pressure she puts on herself to be brave becomes increasingly hard to bare. Though I do like that this book highlights the ways that this aspect of her personality saves the group at times as well. I doubt any of the rest would have been brave enough or thought quickly enough to blow the tunnel up on themselves.
Note: I’m not going to rate these books since I can’t be objective at all! But I’ll give a one sentence conclusion and you can take from that what you will!