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'Even As We Breathe': A First Novel From A Teacher Who Writes For Her Students

An archival postcard of the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, N.C., where much of the novel <em>Even As We Breathe</em> is set.
Smith Collection/Gado
Getty Images
An archival postcard of the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, N.C., where much of the novel Even As We Breathe is set.

The Qualla Boundary is not technically a reservation, but everyone around here calls it one. The ancestral home of the Cherokee people sprawls across western North Carolina, a mountainous region thick with yellow birch and red maple forests, Dollar Generals, and ancient ceremonial mounds dating back to at least 1000 BCE. It's also home to first-time author Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle.

"My Cherokee ancestors have been here, we would say, since the beginning of time," Clapsaddle says. "Other people would say over ten thousand years."

Clapsaddle belongs to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, a tribe numbering now about 14,000. They trace their roots to the resisters of federal Indian removal in the 1830s who hid out, bought back land or returned after their people were pushed west of the Mississippi River. Clapsaddle has done the research and believes she is the tribe's first published novelist.

"I can't speak for self-publishing, but there has not been another novel published by an enrolled member of Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians," she says.

On a recent fall morning, Clapsaddle pours coffee for a guest at an outdoor patio table outside her home overlooking a gorgeous mountain vista. She serves up a creamy pound cake — a recipe that only works, she insists, when baked in an antique pan inherited from her grandmother.

Half white Appalachian, half Cherokee, Clapsaddle comes from a family of local entrepreneurs. Her grandfather started a trading post in 1956 that evolved into a successful gift shop. After attending Yale University and the College of William & Mary for graduate school, Clapsaddle returned to the area to work as a tribal preservationist.

Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle near her home near Cherokee, N.C.
Mallory Cash / University Press of Kentucky
University Press of Kentucky
Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle near her home near Cherokee, N.C.

"Some people work all their lives to retire to western North Carolina," she says in answer to a clearly familiar question. "I just figured I'd get a head start."

Clapsaddle now teaches at a high school with a student population that's 30% Native. She balanced her classes in English and Cherokee studies with writing her novel, Even As We Breathe. In its review, Publishers Weekly called the book "a lush debut, and "an astonishing addition to WWII and Native American literature" when it came out in September. Clapsaddle is quick to acknowledge the timing feels somewhat strange.

"It's bizarre to have a book called Even As We Breathe now when we're making sure we don't breathe on anyone," she observes.

The novel is a mystery of sorts; it's set at an upscale Asheville resort during World War II. The Grove Park Inn was in real life briefly turned into an internment camp for valuable prisoners of war, such as diplomats and their families. The Inn is staffed partly by Native Americans, including her main character, a teenage boy from the reservation named Cowney, who's accused of being involved in the disappearance of a diplomat's daughter.

"So he moves back and forth from Cherokee trying to prove his innocence and also unravel his pretty complicated family history," Clapsaddle explains.

Even As We Breathe is filled with nuances specific to this place and this tribe, from the smell of pine sap and sourwood to the hymns sung in Cherokee at the reservation Methodist church. Clapsaddle was determined with this novel to write characters her students might know in real life.

/ University Press of Kentucky
University Press of Kentucky

"For me, that's what I set out to do, is give my students a story." She tears up, unexpectedly. One of her students reported he never thought he'd see so much of himself in a character as he did with Cowney. "He said, 'People just don't write about people like us,' " she says.

That student was 18-year-old Colby Taylor. He's currently a freshman at the honors college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"I was very, very happy to read something that I could identify with almost completely," he says of Even As We Breathe.

Taylor says he's "a heavy reader." Recent favorites include Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert T. Kiyosaki, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. And while Taylor says he appreciates the work of Sherman Alexie, that fiction reflects the Native experience of the Pacific Northwest. Even As We Breathe immersed the young man in the details of the Cherokee culture he shares.

"We're a matriarchal society," he offers by way of example. "So, we would get our clans from our mothers. We get our last names from our mothers. These are special things."

Special things that are finding a broad audience. Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle has been asked to do virtual readings all over the country – at bookstores in New York and other places that, normally, a first time author would not have the budget to visit. Since her novel came out, Clapsaddle's been doing at least three virtual events a week. Her book, she adds, is already in its second printing.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.

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