“And now it seems possible that love is the only thing that will outlive us all, but only if we continue to tell its story.”
Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle’s Even as We Breathe (The University Press of Kentucky 2020) is a layered and fragile history, cloaked in mystery and romance, that is executed in a way that pays homage to the tradition and art of storytelling. The heart of Clapsaddle’s debut, the rhythmic and lulling thump! thump!, gets in your blood until you can smell the dirt and taste the smoke. This novel with its oft neglected voice of my home state makes me excited for the stories to come.
Cowney Sequoyah, a Cherokee from Cherokee, is struggling with his identity, his future, and his family. His mother died not long after giving birth, and his father, a man Cowney never met, died at the tail end of a world war. He was raised by his father’s mother, his Lishie. While he lives with Lishie, Cowney works with his Uncle Bud, and is subjected to a significant amount of verbal abuse, bitterness and anger at the hands of his father’ brother- a man so consumed with guilt, shame, anger, and grief he can’t see straight.
Even as We Breathe opens with a 19-year-old Cowney preparing to head to the Grove Park Inn and Resort for a summer job. It’s 1942, and a second world war is raging – a deformity from birth having prevented him from enlisting. He is eager to escape Cherokee, and a summer at the Grove Park Inn, which is currently housing foreign diplomats who are called “guests” but aren’t allowed to leave, is just what he needs. Especially if it means he’ll get to spend time with Essie Stamper, a beautiful girl from Cherokee who will also be working at the Inn.
Cowney has sweet, stolen moments with Essie in a room seemingly forgotten by the rest of the Inn. They play dominoes and tell stories. They dream and take pictures with the camera Cowney’s loveable boss lets his use. They’re both working to save money to leave Cherokee for good, and Cowney fancies himself falling in love. But Essie has her own secrets, a love letter squirreled away and a romance that nearly destroy them both.
When the daughter of one of the diplomats goes missing, Cowney, the only Native American male on staff, finds himself an easy target to blame. In finding the truth of the missing girl, he stumbles over the truth of himself, his father, and his Uncle Bud. And much like with Essie, the story that unfolds is not as it first appeared, but both will define his life.
Bears hold special meaning to the Cherokee, and the use of bears in the novel is probably my favorite aspect. From the significance of Bud trying to convince Cowney to help him in trading bear organs with the Asian “guests,” to the wounded bear he encounters, to the mother bear who screams at him -the black bear is artfully utilized in ways that holds meaning and purpose that go well beyond the pages.
Even as We Breathe is a delicate love letter to a people, a history, and place. It will settle on your skin and linger long after the last page. And if you listen, you might just hear Edgar in the sway of the trees.
Read this book.