Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle’s debut novel is a delight for so many reasons. For starters, it’s a good story, well told and a pleasure to read. That counts for a lot, but it’s only the beginning of what’s to be found in this deceptively slim book.
This richly layered book is, on one level, a historical novel, drawing on a real story that even many North Carolinians don’t know — that soon after the United States entered World War II, the storied Grove Park Inn in Asheville was used as a luxurious internment site for Axis diplomats and their families who were in this country and became prisoners.
As with the best historical fiction, this novel’s glimpses into the past also illuminate our present, particularly the way people who are considered “other” — in this case, Cherokee natives — in some way are subjected to inequities and indignities. Without preaching or intrusive exposition, Clapsaddle subtly connects the story she’s telling to larger ideas.
“Even As We Breathe” is also a coming-of-age and a complex love story. Cowney Sequoyah is a 19-year-old orphan who wants to break free from his tribal home in Cherokee and experience the greater world. Born with a malformed foot, he can’t join the Army, so he considers college. He takes a summer job at the Grove Park Inn to earn money and as a first step toward his escape.
Essie Stamper, another young Cherokee eager to try her wings, also takes a job, and the two become friends. Cowney, at least, hopes the friendship will blossom into something more.
The novel is also a mystery. The young daughter of one of the interned families goes missing, and Cowney is high on the suspect list. The white officers in charge of the investigation are only too willing to believe that this quiet, humble young Indian could be guilty of kidnapping and even murder.
There are troubling, unanswered questions, too, in Cowney’s family and life story, and as the novel progresses, he learns more about that — perhaps more than he really wants to know. A man who served with his late father and his uncle in the war emerges as an important character.
This is also a beautifully written novel about life in North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains around Cherokee, rich in nature as well as native myth, legend and culture. Bears and a free-spirited pet capuchin monkey are among both characters and symbols. Nature — streams, waterfalls, a cave, forests, fire, the earth and the bones buried in it, even the air we breathe — comes alive in this beautiful story.
Clapsaddle, a Cherokee who returned to the reservation area to teach and write after obtaining degrees from Yale and the College of William and Mary, obviously knows and loves the region and its history. Having researched the matter, she says she believes she is the first enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee to have a published novel.
The publisher is Fireside Industries Books, an imprint of the University Press of Kentucky, the scholarly publisher for the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Firesides Industries was established to promote the “Appalachian literary tradition by publishing new works and reissues of classics that greatly contribute to the region.” What a marvelous enterprise!
Linda Carter Brinson writes a blog about books, Briar Patch Books, at http://lindabrinson.com.