David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction
SHORTLIST FOR 2013
The Blood of Heaven by Kent Wascom (Grove Press)
Crossing Purgatory by Gary Schanbacher (Pegasus)
Seven Locks by Christine Wade (Atria)
The Son by Philipp Meyer (Ecco)
Swimming in the Moon, by Pamela Schoenewaldt (Morrow)
The Tilted World by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly (Morrow)
Nostalgia by Dennis McFarland (Pantheon)
My Notorious Life by Kate Manning (Scribner)
Love and Lament by John Milliken Thompson (Other Press)
SHORTLIST FOR 2012
The Cove, by Ron Rash (Ecco Press)
A Good Man, by Guy Vanderhaeghe (Atlantic Monthly Press)
San Miguel, by T.C. Boyle (Viking)
Slant of Light, by Steve Wiegenstein (Blank Slate)
True Sisters, by Sandra Dallas (St. Martin’s)
FINAL SHORTLIST FOR 2011
1) John M. Archer, After the Rain: A Novel of War and Coming Home (Gettysburg, PA: Ten Roads Publishing, 2011). The protagonist, Captain Daniel Spencer, is a line officer in the Union army. Wounded at Antietam badly enough to receive a discharge, he makes his way home to his wife and farm, located close to the location of the future Gettysburg battlefield. Civil War books are very common, and many focus of the theme of return. What makes this novel different is its focus on the psychological impact of battle on the protagonist. He feels guilty for leading so many men to their deaths. He experiences nightmares about the fighting, and this affects his relations with his wife. He is afflicted with concern about his dead comrades and ponderings about why he himself was not killed. The actual battle scenes depicted, a small fraction of the book, are not gratuitous, because they are necessary to understand Spencer’s role as company commander. In short, he has what today we would call “post-traumatic stress disorder.” Well-written, and with photographs illustrating many locations and personalities in the plot, the book holds in suspension until the end the central conflict: will this soldier become healed in mind as well as body.
2) Geraldine Brooks, Caleb’s Crossing (New York: Viking, 2011). The mid-seventeenth century Massachusetts of Martha’s Vineyard and Cambridge provide the settings for this exquisitely and lushly written novel that explores the clash of cultures between the Puritan culture and the native Wampanoag inhabitants. Caleb, the son of a local Indian chief, wishes to learn the white man’s ways and is educated by a liberal Puritan minister on Martha’s Vineyard. Bethia Mayfield, the minister’s daughter, meets Caleb, and the story evolves from her viewpoint. Bethia and Caleb form a close and secretive relationship, always platonic, around their mutual affinity for books and knowledge, nature, and each other’s culture. Bethia is especially discontent with the meager educational opportunities available to her as a girl and cleverly contrives to use all the situations in which she finds herself to clandestinely acquire knowledge. There is a good amount of history in this work, but it is interwoven with the literary character of the novel. That a Wampanoag Indian named Caleb graduated from Harvard College in 1665 is fact, but the balance of the book is beautifully written fiction, albeit well-grounded in historical research.
3) Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic (New York: Knopf, 2011). This short, poetic book describes the experiences of the Japanese “picture brides” who were brought over in the very early part of the 20th century to marry Japanese men working in the United States, mostly as farm laborers. It describes their passage over, their meetings with their new husbands, and their difficult relationships with Anglos. It follows them working on the farms and through the Depression, and takes them up to their rounding up for imprisonment in the American concentration camps of W.W. II. The Buddha has an unusual style. It describes a particular person or situation in two or three tight third person sentences, and just as often does the same in the first person plural (“we” or “one of us”). The reader at first feels disoriented, but quickly this babble of individual situations and persons blends together into a harmonious chorus.
4) Pamela Schoenewaldt, When We Were Strangers: A Novel (New York: HarperCollins, 2011). This book follows the travels of a young female immigrant from a small mountain town in Italy as she crosses the ocean, then travels on to Cleveland, then Chicago, and finally San Francisco. Set in the 1870s and 1880s, Irma Vitale, expert dressmaker, experiences many trials and tribulations in this fast-paced novel, until her eventual triumph in a new profession in the West Coast. Packed with details of daily living, housing, and culture, this book describes the immigration experiences not only of Italians but of several other ethnic groups as well.
5) Susan Vreeland, Clara and Mr. Tiffany (New York: Random House, 2011). Clara Driscoll, an actual person, was the head of the women’s department in Louis Comfort Tiffany’s famous New York glass studio. Tiffany preferred female designers and had a large staff of women. However, he hired only single women, and they could continue to work for him only so long as they were unmarried. Unacknowledged publicly by Tiffany, Clara became his principal lamp designer and was responsible for many of the innovations attributed to Tiffany. Conflicts abound between Clara’s fierce desire for artistic recognition, the limited opportunities for professional women in the Gilded Age, and her longing for love and companionship, even a marriage that might result (Tiffany considered an exception for Clara Driscoll) in her termination from the firm. The novel tells us a great deal about the techniques for the construction of Tiffany lamps and windows. The book also shows the reader the lifestyles of the different social classes in Gilded Age New York: Tiffany in his mansion; the poor and immigrant women hired by Clara in their tenements; and Clara herself in her respectable, if somewhat eclectic, middleclass boarding house. This is a well-written novel that gives much insight into life in New York in the 1890s.
The winner of the 2011 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction will be selected from one of these five books. However, still other books will be discussed in the Director’s Mention category. This year the small and often regional presses have issued an unusually large number of high quality books in American historical fiction. Several of these should be discussed and honored, even if only one, After the Rain discussed above, made it onto the formal short list.