At the National Book Awards ceremony on Wednesday night, James McBride won the fiction prize for “The Good Lord Bird.” The novel is about a 12-year-old male slave in 1857 in the Kansas Territory who winds up traveling with abolitionist John Brown, who believes the slave is a girl. “It sure is nice to get it,” McBride said from the stage at the restaurant Cipriani Wall Street in New York.
McBride, a Boston Globe staffer in the early 1980s, won over four other strong fiction contenders, including Rachel Kushner’s “The Flamethrowers” and Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Lowland.”
George Packer took the nonfiction prize for “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America,” a look at the troubling changes in American democracy during the last 30 years. Packer was one of three New Yorker staffers to be nonfiction finalists this year, along with Harvard professor Jill Lepore and Lawrence Wright. By not giving Wright’s unflattering “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief” the big nod, the National Book Foundation dodged a possibly controversial reaction from the Scientology community.
An emotional Mary Szybist won the poetry prize for her “Incarnadine: Poems,” a book that digs into spirituality, divinity, and human life. “Poetry is the place where speaking differently is most prevalent,” she said in her heartfelt acceptance speech. Szybist won against strong competition, including Cambridge poet and Wellesley College professor Frank Bidart’s stark “Metaphysical Dog.”
And the prize for Young People’s Literature — so much more dignified than “Young Adult,” isn’t it? — went to Cynthia Kadohata for “The Thing About Luck,” about siblings who are left with their old-fashioned grandparents while their parents are in Japan.
There was a red carpet situation, by the way, which was aired live on Book TV. But it had none of the preening and glitz of the Hollywood version. “Who published your book?” was the night’s equivalent of the Oscars’ “Who are you wearing?” and “Have you seen Thomas Pynchon?” was the Oscar’s “Have you seen Woody Allen?” Earlier this week, Pynchon’s editor at Penguin Press had announced that the famously press-shy fiction finalist would not be attending the ceremony.
In case you were wondering: Most of the finalists wandered among the 700-plus guests at Cipriani in tuxedos and inconspicuous, attractive black dresses with pearls.
The Book TV pre-ceremony hubbub contained lots of highbrow promotional talk from the finalists, and one lovely moment with Maya Angelou who, along with E.L. Doctorow, won a Lifetime Achievement Award. From her wheelchair, clearly moved, she said, “It’s a wonderful treat. It’s a blessing. It’s important to stay in an attitude of gratitude.”