A personal tale about a father connecting with his son has triumphed over a trio of significant historical figures, as journalist Ian Brown's The Boy in the Moon: A Father's Search for His Disabled Son took the 2010 Charles Taylor Prize for Non-Fiction on Monday.
Toronto-based writer and broadcaster Brown was awarded the $25,000 honour for his acclaimed book, which tells the story of his disabled 13-year-old son, Walker, who has a rare genetic condition that — among its many symptoms — leaves him unable to speak or eat normally and prone to hitting himself.
"This is an enormous honour, pleasure, thrill. It's impossible for me to actually think I have won next to these fine colleagues: Ken, Daniel and professor English," Brown said at the downtown Toronto award gala on Monday, acknowledging his fellow nominees.
"Narrative non-fiction is being ignored these days in favour of faster, shorter blurts," he noted. "I think that narrative non-fiction will come back and this prize keeps it there."
In January, Brown also won the $40,000 British Columbia's National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction — Canada's richest non-fiction prize — for The Boy in the Moon.
This year's Charles Taylor Prize contest had initially appeared like a battle of major biographies, with works about former prime minister Pierre Trudeau (Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 1968-2000 by John English), separatist leader René Lévesque (René Lévesque by Daniel Poliquin) and newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst by Kenneth Whyte) competing.
Brown's The Boy in the Moon: A Father's Search for His Disabled Son, was the only memoir. It was chosen by a three-member jury that included journalist Andrew Cohen, celebrated translator Sheila Fischman and historian Tim Cook, who was 2009's winner.
As finalists, English, Poliquin and Whyte each receive $2,000.
Presented annually, the Charles Taylor Prize recognizes a Canadian author who has written a book that "demonstrates a superb command of the English language, an elegance of style and a subtlety of thought and perception."
Named for the late writer and former Globe and Mail correspondent who died in 1997, past winners have included Richard Gwyn, Carol Shields, Wayne Johnston, Isabel Huggan and J.B. MacKinnon.
Personal tale goes public
The Boy in the Moon had its origins in an essay about Walker and a 2007 multimedia series Brown, an award-winning newspaper and magazine writer, created for the Globe and Mail.
"It's a scary book to pick up," Brown acknowledged.
"You look at it and think 'Man, I don't know if I can get through this. It's about some little kid who's in a bad way.' But then you realize that his struggle is in some ways parallel to our struggles," he said.
'With Walker, you can just be there and it is true. It reminded me that the truest story is the story that is right there: the story that you honestly experience as opposed to what you think you should experience.' — Ian Brown
The seasoned feature-writer, who often admits to toiling with the craft of writing, struggled against a mountain of material he had amassed — from frank descriptions of Walker's many aliments and "ethnographic descriptions of the emergency department, because I'd been there so often," to "interactions, visits to doctors, medical histories [and] genetic science," he recounted.
"I didn't know for a long time what to put in the book… I didn't know whether it would be interesting to anybody. I finally solved that in writing it when I began to pay attention to what Walker did," Brown said.
"With Walker, you can just be there and it is true. It reminded me that the truest story is the story that is right there: the story that you honestly experience as opposed to what you think you should experience."
Brown said he has told Walker of the critical acclaim The Boy in the Moon has received and showed him images of the book.
"He's not completely unaware of it," he said.
"I just talk and he knows that we're hanging out together, engaging. For that time, what I say is irrelevant, but that I am saying it and that he can hear it and that he can respond makes us equals. I don't know if it's a liberation for him, but for me, it's fantastic liberation."