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.
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