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

Nov 22, 2020
Originally published on November 22, 2020 5:41 pm

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

"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

"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.

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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

We turn now to a story of a first-time novelist, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians who's written the first published book by an enrolled member of her tribe. It's a mystery of sorts, set at an upscale mountain resort. It's gotten rave reviews. NPR's Neda Ulaby visited the author near the reservation where she grew up.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: The Qualla Boundary is not technically a reservation, but everyone around here calls it one. Its main town, Cherokee, brings in tourists with a casino, moccasin stores and an old-fashioned gift shop owned by the family of Annette Bird Saunooke Clapsaddle. She grew up helping out, selling stuff like T-shirts, dream catchers and wind chimes.

ANNETTE BIRD SAUNOOKE CLAPSADDLE: Definitely my first job. Spent a lot of times behind that counter right there.

ULABY: Clapsaddle has short auburn hair, dimples to die for and gem-like blue eyes. On one side, she's white Appalachian, On the other, Cherokee. Her ancestors escaped the Indian Removal Act of 1830. About a hundred years later, her grandfather decided to start a business.

CLAPSADDLE: And he built a trading post just down here. And this is actually the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

ULABY: As a kid, Clapsaddle would swim in the Oconaluftee River and explore the red maple, yellow birch forests. Then off she went to Yale University and grad school and worked as a tribal preservationist. Clapsaddle's novel is set during World War II. It's called "Even As We Breathe."

CLAPSADDLE: It's, you know, bizarre to have a book called "Even As We Breathe" when we're now making sure we don't breathe on anyone (laughter).

ULABY: Clapsaddle obviously wrote her book pre-COVID. It takes place at a fancy North Carolina resort-turned-detention camp for valuable prisoners of war. Her main character works there as a groundskeeper. He's a teenage boy from the reservation named Cowney.

CLAPSADDLE: Cowney is 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.

ULABY: "Even As We Breathe" brims with nuances specific to this history, this place and this tribe, from the smell of pine sap and sour wood to the hymns sung in Cherokee at the reservation Methodist church.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Cherokee).

CLAPSADDLE: (Speaking Cherokee). That's the first part of it.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Cherokee).

CLAPSADDLE: I grew up in a Methodist church on the Qualla Boundary, and that is one of the songs that we sang every Sunday. That is the song that when I die will need to be sung at my funeral.

ULABY: Clapsaddle's grandmother taught her that hymn. For the past 10 years, she's taught English and Cherokee studies at a local high school that's 30% Native. With this novel, Clapsaddle was determined to write characters her high school students might know in real life, students like Colby Taylor.

COLBY TAYLOR: I was very, very happy to read something that I could identify with almost completely.

ULABY: Taylor is now a freshman at the Honors College at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and he loves authors like Ralph Ellison and Sherman Alexie. When he read "Even As We Breathe," Taylor was amazed to find himself immersed in such specific details of Cherokee culture.

TAYLOR: We're a matriarchal society, so, like, we would get our clans from our mothers. We would get our last names from our mothers. They're special. These are special things.

CLAPSADDLE: For me, that's it. That's what I set out to do is to give my students a story.

ULABY: Annette Bird Saunooke Clapsaddle was incredibly moved, she said, by a text Colby Taylor sent after reading her novel.

CLAPSADDLE: He said, people just don't write about people like us. And - didn't expect to get choked up on that one.

ULABY: That review is Annette Bird Saunooke Clapsaddle's favorite. It means even more to her than the review from Publishers Weekly that called her book a lush debut, an astonishing addition to World War II and Native American literature that sings on every level. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.