National Book Awards: Louise Erdrich and Katherine Boo Top List, Show Women Writers Excel

Coming in, the awards were all about Junot Diaz and Dave Eggers. But the big prizes heading out of Wednesday’s National Book Awards belong to Louise Erdrich and Katherine Boo.

Erdrich, who’s been a publishing for nearly 30 years, won her first National Book Award for her 14th novel, The Round House. The book is the second installment of a planned trilogy about a Native American Obijwe boy determined to avenge his mother’s rape.

Erdrich gave part of her acceptance speech in her native Obijwe. She closed in English, dedicating the award “to the grace and endurance of native people.”

The night’s other big winner was Boo, the first-time author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Boo entered with buzz surrounding her book, already a mainstay on book-of-the-year lists. Still, she beat out a competitive crowd in the nonfiction category that included Robert Caro’s Lyndon B. Johnson series and the late Anthony Shadid’s House of Stone, a memoir about his return to his great-grandfather’s estate in war-torn Libya. 

Boo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter currently writing for the New Yorker, takes readers of The Beautiful Forevers inside a Mumbai slum for a story of a boy and the harsh and illuminating after effects of crime — or perceived crime. More broadly, it explores themes of inequality and the perseverance of families striving for something better. In her acceptance, Boo praised Shadid, who she described as also believing in the ideal that stories can be used to give voice to those without it. 

William Alexander won the Young Peoples Literature honor for Goblin Secrets and David Ferry’s Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations received the award for Poetry. Elmore Leonard, best known for Get Shorty, was honored for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. In its 63rd year, the National Book Awards were held before nearly 700 attendees were on hand at Cipriani, a luxurious Wall Street landmark. Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her, Eggers’ A Hologram for the King, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds made up Erdrich’s competitors in the fiction category.