“Even As We Breathe,” by Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle

Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

Infused with Cherokee myth and the history of North Carolina’s famous Grove Park Inn, Even As We Breathe is a stunningly beautiful coming-of-age novel. With its publication, Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle joins Louise Erdrich, Sherman Alexie, N. Scott Momaday, and Leslie Marmon Silko as a new and important voice in Native American literature.

The story takes place during the waning years of World War II. Nineteen-year-old Cowney Sequoyah is prevented from fighting by a “skee-jawed foot,” but that doesn’t keep him from longing to escape from the mountains “that both hold and suffocate.”  Like most young people, Cowney yearns to see more of the world and find his place in it. A world where the cupboards aren’t bare. A world away from Uncle Bud’s criticism. Yet even as Cowney dreams of escape, he knows he will miss his grandmother and his home: “If I thought too much about the sweetness of my place in the world, I might never be able to leave it.” A summer job two-hours away at the Grove Park Inn offers him an opportunity to taste life away from home and earn a little income.

Besides offering an exotic setting for the story, the Grove Park Inn adds historical interest. It houses foreign diplomats and their children as prisoners of war. They are referred to and treated like guests even though they live behind a barbed wire fence. Military guards roam the grounds and hallways.

Clapsaddle peoples her novel with all the necessary characters. The love interest: Essie Stamper, who also dreams of a better life away from the reservation. Cowney’s ally and boss at the Inn: World War I veteran Lee. Antagonists: A colonel, who claims you can’t trust an Indian. And Sol, whose cruelty mirrors Uncle Bud’s, whose prejudices against Indians are clear: “You tried to think. Your kind haven’t much practice with that.” The impossibility of getting along with Sol is made clear by this exchange:

“If the old man wants a new pet to play fetch with, that’s his business, but I don’t plan to share my scraps with any more mongrels than I have to. Do us both a favor and get one home ’fore your momma’s teats dry up.”

“I’m not taking nothing’ from you.” I shook my head.

“Takin’ my air every time you open that trap of yours.”

Cowney is left wondering how to live alongside a co-worker who resents sharing even the air he breathes.

The plot has all the right elements. First love. Obstacles to achieving goals. Betrayal by friends. A mystery. Long-hidden secrets revealed. Even painful losses and death. When a child goes missing, Cowney is accused of abduction and murder. The white men in charge are eager to believe the worst of an Indian. As he tries to clear his name, he reaches out to one of his father’s war buddies, an alliance which also provides clues to the mystery surrounding his father’s death.

The setting, characters, and plot alone would build a solid story, but with the skilled weaving in of myth and symbol, Even As We Breathe becomes a truly top-shelf literary novel. The theme of freedom and imprisonment is illustrated by barbed wire and cages. The “guests” at the Grove Park Inn may be surrounded by barbed wire but in many ways have more freedom and luxuries than the workers at the Inn. Cowney and Essie encounter prejudice because of their skin, a prison they can’t escape. Back in Cherokee, a monkey named Edgar is allowed to roam free because its caretaker hates the idea of imprisoning any life form. Cowney’s father dies next to a barbed wire fence, unable to forget a terrible betrayal. And of course, there’s the war the Allies are fighting overseas in the name of freedom.

Another powerful symbol first appears when Cowney hears a mother bear scream, a warning to fend off threats to her cubs. After Cowney’s grandmother dies, he replicates that scream. Later, an injured bear enters a pool of water at the base of a waterfall and emerges healed, foreshadowing Cowney’s healing  when immerses himself in these waters following loss and betrayal. Cherokee legend tells of such healing waters deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The mystical nature of waterfalls and mountains are also important in the story. When Cowney wonders how his father could have gotten through barbed wire to the enemy side of the fence where he was killed, Cowney’s grandmother Lishie explains the unknowable this way: “Your grandpa used to swear that that boy would go in a cave and come out a waterfall clear on the other side of the mountain.” Caves have long been a symbol of rebirth and passages. Both Cowney and Essie leave the mountains of the reservation and come out on the other side as different people. Their relationship is special and enduring, “a true friendship, a kind of love that can’t really be named.”

And finally, bones take on unique meanings as a sacred reminder of the ancestors buried on the land. They endure beyond the flesh, and yet cannot last forever. That is left for the stories passed down to future generations. Even As We Breathe is a worthy story indeed.

Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, resides in Qualla, NC. She holds degrees from Yale University and the College of William and Mary. Even As We Breathe is her debut novel. Her work Going to Water won The Morning Star Award for Creative Writing from the Native American Literature Symposium (2012), and was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction (2014). After serving as Executive Director of the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, Annette returned to teaching English and Cherokee Studies at Swain County High School. She is the former co-editor of the Journal of Cherokee Studies and serves on the Board of Trustees for the North Carolina Writers Network.

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