The 2013 winners of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize were announced at the end of September. I’m a bit late to this posting them, but the award ceremony was today, so it’s appropriate if belated. (I wrote about the list of finalists and the goal of the prize here.)
For fiction, the winner was The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson and the runner-up was Billy Lynn’s Long Half-time Walk by Ben Fountain. I’ve heard good things about both, but haven’t read either.
I’ve mostly been reading the non-fiction finalists for the award and I am excited about both the winner and the runner-up.
Winner: Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon is about the relationships between parents and children who differ from each other in fundamental ways. It’s an unreasonably long book, at 800+ pages, and I had to return it to the library today half-read. But the half that I did read was very much worth my time.
Each chapter focuses on a single type of difference and stands alone quite well, even if you don’t have the time to read the whole book. The chapters I read in the first half of the book were each about a different disability*, such as deafness, dwarfism, and autism. The stories and experiences of individual parents and children with each condition make up the bulk of each chapter, with a strong skew towards the more affluent and towards people living in New York City and environs. But the stories are structured as part of a larger narrative as to how people with the condition and their parents see themselves/their children.
I appreciated Andrew Solomon’s ability to consider many different points of view in a way that made me understand them even if I didn’t agree with them. But at the same time he actually drew his own conclusions and didn’t just resort to the easy road of ‘everyone’s opinion is valid’. I learned a lot about issues I had never really considered, such as the pros and cons of sign language versus lip-reading.
Runner-up: Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King apparently also won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-fiction, but I hadn’t heard of it before I saw it in the Dayton finalists list. Even once I saw it in the list, I wasn’t particularly planning to read it. But it was in the library, so I grabbed it when I was checking out some of the other finalist books.
I’m glad I did! The book tells the story of a 1949 case in Florida of four black men accused of raping a white woman. Before starting to read, I thought that focusing on a single case seemed awfully narrow, at least for someone like me who isn’t a specialist . What I found however is that Gilbert King used the focus on a single case to explore all the interacting economic and political forces that were involved. Often in ways I never would have thought about.
For example, I knew that in such cases lynch mobs were common and that law enforcement was often complicit with the mobs. So when the sheriff in Groveland moved the accused men to another jail to protect them from the mob, I thought that said something good about him. But it turns out to be much more complicated. The sheriff was elected with the support of the wealthy citrus-growers in the area who didn’t want mob violence to scare the black population, which they depended on for cheap labor, out of town.
Other finalists: I read a couple of chapters of Pax Ethnica by Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac. I was initially excited by the book’s premise of studying places in the world where diverse groups of people get along peacefully in order to see what enables them to do so. In the end, the premise may have been too ambitious-I found myself unconvinced by the explanations of even why particular places were peaceful, let alone broader conclusions as to ways to promote peace more generally.
I read another finalist, Burying the Typewriter by Carmen Bugan, as my book-from-every-country selection for Romania, so that will get its own post, hopefully soon.
* I hesitate to use the word disability here, because the question of whether the condition should be seen as a disability at all is questioned in several of the chapters. The better phrasing might be ‘conditions traditionally classed as disabilites.