81-year-old Peter Matthiessen has taken home the National Book Award for fiction in something of an upset. His book, Shadow Country (excerpt), as the Bloomberg notes, came about after he “rewrote and compressed portions of his novels about the murderous Florida sugar-cane farmer Edgar J. Watson — Killing Mister Watson, Lost Man’s River and Bone by Bone — into a single 892-page volume published by the Modern Library.”
While Matthiessen’s win was perhaps a slight upset over Marilynne Robinson, whose Home was a sequel to Pulitzer-winning Gilead, the bigger upset was on the non-fiction side, where Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (excerpt) beat out The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals by Jane Mayer. Mayer’s indictment of the Bush administration’s anti-terror tactics grabbed plenty of headlines this year, but The Hemingses of Monticello, despite being less obviously timely, was highly regarded for moving the ball forward in pursuing the thorny truth behind Thomas Jefferson and his slaves. Indeed, Jill Lepore made a very compelling case for the book in the New Yorker in September.
Rounding out the winners, Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems by Mark Doty (poem) won the poetry category and the award in young people’s literature went to What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell.