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EVEN AS WE BREATHE
by Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle
University of Kentucky Press, February 2023
231 pages
ISBN: 1950564061


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Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle's EVEN AS WE BREATHE, published in 2020 and now released in paperback, is an astonishing debut novel. Clapsaddle is an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. Her gripping mystery is also a coming of age story and an important, revealing work of historical fiction, a kind of unusually honest national epic. It exists easily in all these genres because the first-person voice of Clapsaddle's hero is so engaging. Clapsaddle's evocative, significant writing deserves a wide audience.

That hero is Cowney Sequoyah, a Cherokee teenager living in a South Carolina mountain town called Cherokee in 1942. His family has been decimated by the cruel Boarding School policy and the First World War. Also, Cowney is a deductive reasoner, like Sherlock Holmes. In a different era, he might have had the opportunity to become a scientist or a historian. In 1942 Cherokee, he doesn't. When he deduces that a fog will clear, someone asks if that is "some kind of Indian prophecy." "No," Cowney says, "science." His grandmother, Lishie -- a sharp observer whom he calls his "own Ernie Pyle" -- has protected him thus far, but her health is failing.

Very little in his current life interests him--except the hidden past. He has found a bone, certainly human, He wants to know, acknowledge, and respect his community's dead, but the America of 1942 won't allow that. There are no opportunities in Cherokee, so Cowney takes a job at Asheville's luxe Grove Park Inn. So does his friend Essie. Cowney has a major crush on Essie, which makes Grove Inn more appealing.

When Cowney arrives, he experiences several shocks. A group of diplomats from countries including Japan and Italy are held there with their families as POWs. The US military is in charge, just like a hundred years ago. A portrait of Andrew Jackson makes an appearance, underscoring this point. Euphemisms such as "guests" barely mask the reality of the situation: that these people herded here by the US military have no freedom to go anywhere else, especially not home.

Essie does some exploring of her own and develops plans for her future that aren't what Cowney expected, and may unnerve readers.

Halfway into the book, a little girl, the daughter of a "guest," disappears, and Cowney finds himself accused of her murder, supposedly because he picked up the bone and certainly because he's Indigenous. As he points out, the bone is too old to have been the girl's and she disappeared after he found it. His accusers don't care. As Cowney struggles to clear himself, he learns about the hypocrisy that surrounds him and he struggles not to lose Essie, his family, and his culture.

The book's epilogue takes place in the present, when Cowney and other important characters, those who have miraculously survived, confront their own mortality. It's poetic and reinforces the importance of what they've done and witnessed and been through. As the title suggests, the living are always in the process of becoming history. You'll want to read EVEN AS WE BREATHE more than once.

Rebecca Nesvet is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay and co-edits Reviewing the Evidence.

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, March 2023

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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