Even As We Breathe

University of ­Kentucky. Sept. 2020. 240p. Tr $24.95. ISBN 9781950564064.
Gr 9 Up–It is 1942 and 19-year-old Cowney is adrift. He can’t enlist in the army due to a physical disability, he left junior college and hasn’t decided whether he’s going back, and he feels out of place at home on the Qualla Boundary and outside the reservation where racism runs rampant. Needing money for tuition, and wanting to prove himself useful to the war effort, Cowney takes a groundskeeper position at the Grove Park Inn. Although they are still referred to as “guests,” the residents of the Inn are not tourists or vacationers, they are diplomats and other high-class POWs. Working at the Inn throws issues of class, race, and ableism into stark relief for Cowney, whose introspective nature lends itself to observation and insight into the world around him. Tragedies strike fast and thick throughout the summer, and when a child goes missing, suspicion falls on Cowney. A tangled and intricate plot unrolls with exquisite slowness, and Clapsaddle portrays the smoke-filled forests of Cowney’s home with stunning sensory detail; things that were once familiar take on a newly sinister cast in the haze. Clapsaddle’s debut is a lyrical and moving period piece that is both evocative of the WWII home front and resonant with today. The novel takes on familiar coming-of-age tropes and adds an incisive #OwnVoices edge.
VERDICT This is the first novel published by an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), and Clapsaddle adds a vivid voice to the fiction of Appalachia. A first purchase for all high school and public libraries.

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