It is remarkable that it has taken this long to see a novel published by an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. That work, Even As We Breathe by Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, is a good’n’.
Cowney Sequoyah is a young Cherokee man. A club foot has saved him from (or robbed him of, depending on the perspective) service in WWII. The dearth of available labor and the need of somewhere to house foreign dignitaries/prisoners gives him the opportunity for good work outside of the Qualla Boundary on the grounds crew at the Grover Park Inn. An initial carpool there brings him into the orbit of Essie Stamper, a beautiful young Cherokee woman working as a maid at the Grove Park for the summer.
I thought that maybe Even As We Breathe was a romance when I picked it up, which wouldn’t have been a bad thing, although I almost never read romance novels. It is not. I saw somewhere an assertion that the difference between a commercial work and a “literary” work is that, in the commercial work, the protagonists gets what he wants and, in the literary work, the protagonist does not. Cowney desperately wants Essie, but he won’t have her.
I labeled it as a country noir above, and there is one grisly crime that plays a major role in the culmination of the plot, but it wouldn’t be unfair to characterize this as a straight literary novel, albeit “regional fiction.”
It also wouldn’t be unfair to label it a coming of age story. Cowney is, strictly speaking, an adult, but one who needs to decide whether he will go to college or do something else. Who is still clumsy in his interactions with the opposite sex. Who has to come to grips with the legacy of his long dead father, who died during WWI. Who has to come to grips with his drunken, emotionally abusive uncle. Who has to come to grips with a society that treats him with considerably greater odium than aristos from Italy or even Japan.
Being Cherokee in a white man’s world is a dangerous occupation. It can grind a man up who just gets caught between someone else’s wheels. Clapsaddle spends a lot of time building up Cowney’s (platonic) relationship with Essie, his relationships with his grandmother and uncle, with the people he meets at the Grove Park, but we know the sword that hangs over his head, and how thin the thread that holds it is.
Even As We Breathe is beautifully written, but its great strength is its three-dimensional characters. Clapsaddle may be a Yale grad, but she resists forcing her characters into the two-dimensional role expected of them by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and New York literary establishment set. Like people in real life, Clapsaddle’s characters cannot be summarized in a single sentence. Each is capable of tremendous decency or great cruelty.
The plot might be a little too conventional, though, even if it avoids certain conventions. Clapsaddle grounding her characters is a double-edged sword. She avoids making them cardboard cutouts, but the story lacks a daring that might make them sing.
Can we stop for a minute and consider the abundance of literary talent in Western North Carolina? Thomas Wolfe and John Ehle were succeeded by Ron Rash and Charles Frazier, and Clapsaddle joins young talent like David Joy, Jeremy Jones, Leah Hampton, and Wiley Cash.
4 of 5 Stars.