Even As We Breathe by Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle

 Even As We Breathe
 Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle
 Fireside Industries 
 September 2020
 ISBN: 9781950564064
 240 pages
 HC: $24.95
 Order here 

Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle’s debut novel is a triumph of storytelling. Her story, set on the Qualla Boundary among the Cherokee people of western North Carolina and in Asheville, North Carolina, is about the Cherokee people in transition after WW2. As I read, I asked myself, how can a story hold our attention when its narrator, Cowney Sequoyah, repeatedly tells us he doesn’t remember the momentous details of his life?  This question arose when the story discusses the day Cowney Sequoyah’s father died, or how his beloved grandmother Lishie looked standing at the clothesline when the soldier came to tell her the news, or when Cowney goes onto say, “I don’t remember my father’s face cradled in the pine casket by one of Lishie’s special quilts.” Still, the opening pages of Clapsaddle’s novel Even As We Breath are rendered in such heart-breaking detail by the young Cherokee Indian Cowney, that we are captivated by the authenticity of his voice. In the novel, Cowney recovers the look and feel of events that happened when he was a baby and too young to remember physical details. He probes the depths of loss, grief and longing for all those who have failed him and loved him. How he does this can be found in the novel’s refrain: “blood and land hold stories for those who seek them.” 

Clapsaddle is at ease in deploying a large and varied cast of characters: members of the military stationed in North Carolina, a young Cherokee girl named Essie, Cowney’s love interest, and “Uncle Bud,” the relative whose verbal abuse is more hurtful to Cowney than a physical beating. Their stories are mingled with big events and questions of inhumanity: from murders, warfare, Japanese internment camps, and who has a right to own human remains. Clapsaddle has given us fiction that eschews the stereotyping of American Indians and shows us how the land and blood teach Natives who we are. Brava. I will be teaching her novel in my American Indian literature courses for years to come.  As Ojibwe writer Gerald Vizenor has said, “You can’t understand the world without telling a story.” [1]

[1] Laura Coltelli, Winged Words: American Indian Writers Speak (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990), 156

LeAnne Howe, Eidson Distinguished Professor at the University of Georgia, connects literature, Indigenous knowledge, Native histories, and expressive cultures in her work. Her interests include Native and indigenous literatures, performance studies, film, and Indigeneity. Howe’s latest monograph Savage Conversations, set in 1875, is the story of Mary Todd Lincoln and the Savage Indian that she said was torturing her nightly during her confinement in an insane asylum at Batavia, Illinois.