November 18, 2004
South America Epic Wins the National Book Award
he News From Paraguay," Lily Tuck's historical epic set in 19th-century South America, won the National Book Award for fiction last night, capping a month in which the publishing world debated the merits of the work of five little-known female authors living in New York City and the meaning and purpose of literary awards.
The novel, published by HarperCollins, is the tale of a woman who blunders her way into history and a dictator who both gives her a family and destroys it. Rick Moody, the chairman of the panel of judges who chose the winner and the four other finalists, called it a novel of "astonishing quality" that incorporates a rich mixture of language and imagination.
The imagination portion in particular was evident when, in her acceptance remarks, Ms. Tuck confessed that she had never been to Paraguay and did not intend to go.
"I've often been asked, 'Why Paraguay?' " Ms. Tuck told an audience of about 600 people at the Marriott Marquis in Midtown Manhattan. "I don't have an answer," she said, although she admitted that it did allow her to exercise her penchant for writing about "stuff that most people don't know about" and satisfied her "need to teach or instruct."
"It gives me an edge," she added.
The nonfiction prize went to Kevin Boyle for "Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age,'' published by Henry Holt & Company. Mr. Boyle, a professor of history at Ohio State University, wrote of the life of Dr. Ossian Sweet, whose purchase of a house in an all-white neighborhood in Detroit in the early 1920's sparked a race riot and murder trial.
When whites attacked Dr. Sweet's home shortly after he moved in, one of the attackers was shot and killed by a panicked black man who had come to Dr. Sweet's defense. The Sweets and nine other men were charged with murder. Reviewing the book in The New York Times, Patricia Cohen said the story of the trial, and the defense effort headed by Clarence Darrow, "is filled with rich detail and unexpected twists," although not for Dr. Sweet. Though he finally won acquittal, he lived out his life as a bitter, unhappy man in what remains one of the most segregated cities in America.
The poetry prize went to "Door in the Mountain'' (Wesleyan University Press), by Jean Valentine, and the award for young people's literature went to Pete Hautman for "Godless'' (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers).
Ms. Tuck began her acceptance remarks with a salute to "my fellow unknown finalists," a reference to the debate sparked by the finalists, who included two first-time novelists, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum for "Madeleine Is Sleeping'' (Harcourt), and Christine Schutt for "Florida'' (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press), and the authors of two collections of stories,"Our Kind'' (Scribner), by Kate Walbert, and "Ideas of Heaven'' (W. W. Norton), by Joan Silber.
Ms. Tuck is one of the better-known finalists, having been nominated in 2000 for the PEN/Faulkner Award. She is the author of three previous novels.
The host of the awards ceremony was Garrison Keillor, the humorist, radio star and best-selling author, who noted that he had been nominated for Grammy Awards for his radio show countless times without winning. "I'm available for counsel and comfort," he told the nominees. "I assure you that awards are meaningless."
The National Book Foundation, a publishing industry organization that sponsors the awards, presented its annual Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to Judy Blume, whose books have won legions of fans among children and young adults but have also been deemed by some parents as too frank for their children.
Ms. Blume, whose books include "Freckle Juice" and the "Fudge" series, is the first author of books written primarily for children to receive the medal, which has been awarded for 16 years. Although she has written several novels for adults, her better-known work for youngsters deals with coming-of-age topics often deemed taboo, including menstruation, masturbation and virginity.
Named this year by the American Library Association as one of the most censored writer of the last 15 years, Ms. Blume said she never thought she would write children's books because, "I never found my kind of reality in children's books." And she never dreamed, she said, that her books about the realities of growing up would become the targets of censors.
"It makes me sad and angry that encouraging young people to think for themselves makes you subversive," she said. Ms. Blume was preceded by Abby Boyle, the daughter of the author who later won the nonfiction prize. She read a passage from Ms. Blume's classic coming-of-age tale, "Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret."
The nonfiction finalists included "Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare,'' an account of Shakespeare's life in Elizabethan England by Stephen Greenblatt (W. W. Norton); "Washington's Crossing,'' by David Hackett Fischer (Oxford University Press), an analysis of a pivotal moment of the American Revolution; "Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett,'' by Jennifer Gonnerman (Farrar, Straus & Giroux); and "The 9/11 Commission Report" (W. W. Norton & Company), the government report written by committee that nevertheless read like a thriller.
The 9/11 Report was considered a nominal favorite for the nonfiction award, although some criticized its nomination because it was written by a committee with no identifiable author.