Louise Erdrich wins U.S. National Book Award

The U.S. National Book Awards honoured both longtime writers and new authors on Wednesday, from Louise Erdrich for The Round House to Katherine Boo for her debut work, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers.
Author Louise Erdrich, seen at her store BirchBark Books in Minneapolis, is one of the 2012 winners of the U.S. National Book Awards. (Dawn Villella/Associated Press)

The U.S. National Book Awards on Wednesday honoured both longtime writers and new authors, from Louise Erdrich for The Round House to Katherine Boo for her debut work, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers.

Erdrich, 58, has been a published and highly regarded author for nearly 30 years but had never won a National Book Award until being cited Wednesday for her story, the second of a planned trilogy, about an Ojibwe boy and his quest to avenge his mother's rape. A clearly delighted and surprised Erdrich, who's part Ojibwe, spoke in her tribal tongue and then switched to English as she dedicated her fiction award to "the grace and endurance of native people."

The works of two other winners also centred on young boys — Boo's for nonfiction, and William Alexander's fantasy Goblin Secrets, for young people's literature. David Ferry won for poetry.

Boo's book, set in a Mumbai slum, is the story of a boy and his harsh and illuminating education in the consequences of crime or perceived crime. The author, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist currently on staff with The New Yorker, said she was grateful for the chance to live in a world she "didn't know" and for the chance to tell the stories of those otherwise ignored. She praised a fellow nominee and fellow Pulitzer-winning reporter, the late Anthony Shadid, for also believing in stories of those without fame or power.

Strong list of nonfiction contenders

Boo was chosen from one of the strongest lists of nonfiction books in memory, from the fourth volume of Robert Caro's Lyndon Johnson series to Shadid's memoir House of Stone. Finalists in fiction, which in recent years favoured lesser known writers, included such established names as Dave Eggers and Junot Diaz. Publishers have been concerned that the National Book Awards have become too insular and are considering changes, including expanding the pool of judges beyond writers.

Winners, chosen by panels of their peers, each will receive $10,000 US. Judges looked through nearly 1,300 books.

Ferry is a year older than one of the night's honorary recipients, Elmore Leonard. Ferry, 88, won for Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations, a showcase for his versatile style. He fought back tears as he confided that he thought there was a chance for winning because he "was so much older" than the other nominees. Attempting to find poetry in victory, he called the award a "pre-posthumous" honour.

Alexander quoted fellow fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin in highlighting the importance of stories for shaping kids' imaginations and making the world a larger place than the one they live in.

"We have to remember that," Alexander said.

The ceremony was hosted by commentator-performer Faith Salie and went smoothly even though Superstorm Sandy badly damaged the offices of the award's organizer, the National Book Foundation, whose staffers had to work with limited telephone and mail access.

Honorary prizes were given to Leonard and New York Times publisher and chairman Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr.