Charles Porter’s Underwater Panthers, the fourth in a series, features Aubrey Shallcross’s motley band of eco-warriors, dubbed the “Underwater Panthers.”
The series’ central premise is that spirits of the deceased ( “slippers”) survive in new hosts (sometimes animals) and that certain special individuals (i.e. “schizophrenics”) can commune with them. Aubrey is one of them, and he uses his ability to communicate via slippers with two massive alligators to help the Underwater Panthers fight environmental degradation near his Florida farm.
Under police scrutiny, Aubrey relocates his family and the Panthers to a friend’s Massachusetts farm. The unlikely assembly includes carnies, a medicine man, the alligators, and a chimpanzee, as well as Aubrey’s 15-year-old son Drayton and Drayton’s best friend Yuchee, a Seminole boy mourning the loss of his mother.
When the boys are introduced to Dr. Murphy, a local researcher rehabilitating a rare, white whale, orphaned in the nearby cove, they are instantly enamored with Murphy’s daughters, Sharon and her fraternal, albino twin Eira. Meanwhile, the discovery of the white whale has attracted unwanted attention, and the Panthers find new purpose in protecting the creature.
Inevitable Moby Dick references are somewhat heavy handed, and while Massachusetts provides a fresh setting, it robs the book of some of its Southern gothic aesthetic. The story is also crowded with characters, some getting little attention, which could be confusing for new readers. Porter provides an artful recap, but Underwater Panthers dwells in the shadow of its most recent predecessor, Animal Slippers, and familiarity with that highly recommended book is advisable.
Nonetheless, Porter’s latest is a worthy addition to the series, capturing the same sublime poetry in passages of righteous violence, evoking the same mysteries in the animism of nature, but this time woven around Yuchee’s grief-soaked coming-of-age story and the boys’ budding romance with the Murphy girls.
It’s provocative, tragic, funny, gut wrenching, and heartwarming all at once, and yet another notable work from a rare and unique talent.
Also available as an ebook.