Pulitzer Prizes: A Guide to the Winning Books and Finalists

Louise Erdrich won the fiction prize for her novel “The Night Watchman.” Here are the 2021 contenders for fiction, nonfiction, poetry, history and biography.,

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Fifteen books were recognized as winners or finalists for the Pulitzer Prize on Friday, in the categories of fiction, general history, biography, poetry and general nonfiction

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Fiction

This novel follows members of the Chippewa in the 1950s, as Congress weighs a bill to “emancipate” Indigenous people from their lands and their tribal affiliations. The title character was modeled after Erdrich’s grandfather, who sent voluminous letters to Washington in an effort to save his tribe. Our reviewer called the book “a magisterial epic that brings her power of witness to every page.”

Finalist: “A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth,” by Daniel Mason (Little, Brown)

Mason spent 15 years working on this collection of short fiction, with stories set in far-flung places like the Malay Archipelago, the outer limits of the atmosphere, an asylum on the edge of Rio de Janeiro. “The grand pleasures of fiction are all here: rich, cushioning detail; vivid characters delivering decisive action; and a sense of escape into a larger world,” a reviewer for The Guardian wrote.

Finalist: “Telephone,” by Percival Everett (Graywolf)

Everett wrote and published three different versions of this formally groundbreaking novel, which looks at how race and gender can impact the way our lives unfold. The narrative, which centers on a professor of geology and paleobiology, his wife and their teenage daughter, plays with the concept of how readers can derive different meanings from a single work. “I’m interested not in the authority of the artist, but the authority of the reader,” Everett said in an interview with The New York Times. Everett’s publisher sent different versions to different retail outlets, and said that members of award committees might be reading different editions. “It could be that some judges are discussing the book, but they’re not all reading the same book,” said Fiona McCrae, the publisher of Graywolf Press.

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HISTORY

Chatelain, a history professor at Georgetown, offers a look at the intricate ties between the fast-food behemoth and Black communities — and how their relationships were full of compromises and contradictions. Our critic Jennifer Szalai called the book “impressively judicious,” adding that Chatelain’s “sense of perspective gives this important book an empathetic core as well as analytical breadth, as she draws a crucial distinction between individual actors, who often get subjected to so much scrutiny and second-guessing, and larger systems, which rarely get subjected to enough.”

Finalist: “The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America,” by Eric Cervini (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

An account of the gay liberation movement before the Stonewall riots of 1969, “The Deviant’s War” explores the life and activism of Franklin Kameny, a Harvard-educated astronomer who fought the U.S. government after he was fired from the Army, and who has been called the intellectual father of the gay rights movement.

Finalist: “The Three-Cornered War: The Union, the Confederacy, and Native Peoples in the Fight for the West,” by Megan Kate Nelson (Scribner)

Nelson’s narrative of how the Civil War unfolded in the West examines the conflict from the perspectives of nine historical figures from different backgrounds. Critics and historians have praised Nelson for shedding light on how the Civil War impacted Native people living in the West. “Rarely is a Civil War book so readable and so new to our understanding,” the biographer David W. Blight said in a blurb.

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Credit…Liveright, via Associated Press

Biography

This biography, which also won the National Book Award for nonfiction, was a decades-long project; Les Payne died in 2018, leaving his daughter and principal researcher, Tamara, to finish the manuscript. “Nobody has written a more poetic account” of Malcolm X’s life, our reviewer said, praising the book’s reconstruction of the key events in his life.

Finalist: Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath,” by Heather Clark (Knopf)

In this biography, Clark pulls from materials that have never been accessed before — including court documents and psychiatric records, unpublished manuscripts and letters — to rescue Plath “from the reductive cliches and distorted readings of her work largely because of the tragedy of her ending,” a review in The New York Times said.

Finalist: “Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World,” by Amy Stanley (Scribner)

Stanley follows the daughter of a Buddhist priest, Tsuneno, who defies social convention to make a life for herself in 19th-century Japan — running away from her village after three divorces to live in Edo, the city that would become Tokyo. The book won a National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography.

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poetry

In her second book, Diaz claims a classic form — the love poem — and centers the experiences of queer women of color. Our reviewer praised the “extreme lushness to the language Diaz uses, especially about love, sex and desire.”

Finalist: A Treatise on Stars,” by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge (New Directions)

This collection, which was also a finalist for the National Book Award, leaps from the deeply personal to the cosmic.

Finalist: “In the Lateness of the World,” by Carolyn Forche (Penguin Press)

Forche’s first new poetry collection in 17 years, this book is “steeped in images of sea and border crossings, travel papers and suitcases,” our reviewer wrote. “The poet’s extraordinary diction coupled with direct address generates a sense of empathy for the dispossessed.”

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General nonfiction

This book tells the forgotten history of a coup against an elected multiracial government in North Carolina, tracing efforts by white supremacists to establish white rule in Wilmington while cinematically detailing the bloody assault on Black residents of the town. More than 60 people died, and Zucchino brings the story into the present by interviewing descendants of the perpetrators and those who bore the brunt of the assault.

Finalist: “Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning,” by Cathy Park Hong (One World/Random House)

A blend of memoir and cultural criticism, this essay collection examines racial consciousness in America with humor and vulnerability. “Minor Feelings” was a New York Times best seller and a National Book Critics Circle Award winner.

Finalist: “Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman’s Search for Justice in Indian Country,” by Sierra Crane Murdoch (Random House)

Written by a journalist based in the American West, this story takes place on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota, a place transformed by the Bakken oil boom. “Yellow Bird” follows an Arikara woman as she tries to solve the murder of a young, white oil worker who has gone missing.

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