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Literary Arts News, Writers

2021 Oregon Book Awards Winners

During a special episode of The Archive Project, the winners of the 2021 Oregon Book Awards, selected by panels of out-of-state judges, were announced.

KEN KESEY AWARD FOR FICTION 

 Vanessa Veselka of Portland
The Great Offshore Grounds (Alfred A. Knopf)

Judges: Michael Byers, Joseph Cassara, Hilary Leichter

The characters of Vanessa Veselka’s The Great Offshore Grounds are as close to one another and as far apart as humanly possible. Essex, Livy, and Cheyenne, the siblings at the center of the novel, travel across the country, into the heart of their family’s story, and off into the middle of the ocean. These are the places that poverty and the deepest kinds of loneliness drive us, to the ends of the earth, that we might find each other and end up somewhere better and safer than where we started. I was riveted by every line, the humor of being alive, the pathos of this deeply American narrative, and the energy of the prose, which contains everything from the blunt and stunning grammar of history to the personal language of the heart. Livy sometimes has to practice dead reckoning in her work at sea, estimating direction and location without an external point of reference. Veselka’s prose measures itself with a similar internal confidence and acuity, the life and death certainty of one sentence barreling into the next, singular and divine. I could not look away. – Hilary Leichter

STAFFORD/HALL AWARD FOR POETRY

Anna Elkins of Rogue River
Hope of Stones (Press 53)

Judges: Tyree Daye, Erika Meitner, Kathryn Nuernberger 

Recently, I have thought that poetry may be the closest we come to time travel. Hope of Stones is an excellent example of time travel in a book. The way Anna Elkins braids three moments’ in time together to make meaning in the speaker’s life, of the Nuns and the Architect, is such a wonderful craft element of this book. I was also taken by the imagination of the book and Elkins’ ability to wonder. I am always telling my students about worldbuilding, but I feel like Elkins has built a small solar system. – Tyree Daye

ANGUS BOWMER AWARD FOR DRAMA

Conor Eifler of Portland
You Cannot Undo This Action

Judges:  Michelle Carter, Diana Grisanti, KJ Sanchez

There’s a laundry list of things you’d expect from a play about teenagers and technology–  questions about its impact on their brains, their behavior, their moral and intellectual development.  (“Is social media turning us into monsters?” one of the characters playfully asks.)   But playwright Conor Eifler’s first concern is rendering teenagers as dimensional human beings, showing their world the respect of his compassionate attention.  The teenagers of You Cannot Undo This Action are smart, hilarious, brave, fearful, wise, naive, and full of longing.   They talk about love, death, Lin-Manuel Miranda, movie trailers, Shakespeare, streetlights, and atom bombs.   They banter, flirt, read tarot, gossip, spar, kiss, and crack each other up.   Technology gives these characters’ personalities full expression.  The playwright immerses us in the space that technology creates, a world in which “what are you on?” doesn’t mean what it meant in the 60s.   And then, in a turn of events so carefully constructed that it feels inevitable, danger comes to this community from an entirely 21st-century direction.  Technology, which has given expression to these characters’ charm and innocence, also empowers those who would use their ingenuity to destroy what they can’t control.   Does technology enable the best in us, or the worst in us?   Like all wonderful plays, You Cannot Undo This Action leaves its questions with us, to carry away for ourselves.   – Michelle Carter

SARAH WINNEMUCCA AWARD FOR CREATIVE NONFICTION 

Sierra Crane Murdoch of Hood River
Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman’s Search for Justice in Indian Country (Random House)

Judges: May-lee Chai, Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Heather Sellers

Sierra Murdoch’s Yellow Bird; Oil, Murder, and a Woman’s Search for Justice in Indian Country is a staggering work of journalism. Every one of Murdoch’s sentences feels deeply researched, alert, and dexterous. The story is about the disappearance of Kristopher “KC” Clarke, a white oil worker in the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, but Murdoch centers the narrative around Lissa Yellow Bird, who without any connection of the crime, tirelessly works to unearth the details of what happened to KC. Murdoch writes with rigor into the issues surrounding the crime and the lives touched by it, achieving exceptional scope. She writes into the history of land dispossession and forced environmental change—which begins with colonization, and continues with the U.S. Government’s interest in its water, and corporate interest in its oil—and balances the true crime elements with a searing family saga, a character and a community seeking different redemptions. Murdoch handles this story with unwavering and expansive mastery. -Ingrid Rojas Contreras

FRANCES FULLER VICTOR AWARD FOR GENERAL NONFICTION 

Nicholas Buccola of Portland
The Fire Is upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America (Princeton University Press)

Judges: Jordanna Bailkin, Farid Matuk, Adam Sowards

James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr. famously debated in 1965 at the Cambridge Union, and, in The Fire Is Upon Us, Nicolas Buccola unpacks this historical touchstone to explain how these key figures arrived at that debate understanding race and American power. With deep research and a brisk narrative, Buccola weaves together the political, intellectual, and moral worldviews of Baldwin and Buckley, showing what each saw at stake in the civil rights movement and how they and the movements they represented would remain at odds. Buccola’s incisive and critical commentary enlivens these men and their ideas, as well as the implications of their positions, demonstrating all the ways this debate remains relevant still. The Fire Is Upon Us delivers what the best historical writing does: a palpable sense of the past itself and its lingering significance on our lives today. —Adam M. Sowards  

LESLIE BRADSHAW AWARD FOR YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE 

Kathryn Ormsbee of Eugene 
The Sullivan Sisters (Simon & Schuster)

Judges: David Macinnis Gill, Cynthia Hand, Sheba Karim

This compelling, heartfelt novel revolves around three sisters: Murphy, an amateur magician and eternal optimist, Claire, a perfectionist determined to fashion the perfect life for herself, and Eileen, who is troubled by a secret that has her drowning her sorrows in alcohol. The girls were once close, but tragedy and their family’s financial troubles have been slowly pulling them apart. Now fate has thrown them back together again on an unexpected road trip to a small seaside Oregon town to solve a compelling family mystery that will challenge all that they thought they knew about themselves. At its center it’s a gripping mystery, but It’s also a story about sisterhood and about learning how to truly support your family through thick and thin.-Cynthia Hand

ELOISE JARVIS MCGRAW AWARD FOR CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Jenn Reese of Portland
A Game of Fox and Squirrels (Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, Macmillan)

Judges: Nikki McClure, Eliot Schrefer, Wendy Wahman

This middle-grade stunner introduces us to an extraordinary fox and a trio of squirrels that appear to a girl reeling from the all-too-ordinary aftereffects of abuse. Sent with her sister to live in Oregon with relatives she barely knows, Samantha is isolated, confused, and reeling from a traumatic past. Enter the enigmatic fox Ashander, who promises her whatever she desires—if only she’ll give him what he wishes first. In prose that is both lush and accessible, Reese captures how a struggling kid’s “bad” behavior can come from a deep sense of obligation to the damaging adults that still live in her head. The metaphor of foxes and squirrels never veers into preciousness or cleverness; instead it’s the perfect form to shed new light on the wonder and terror that live next-door in the mind of a child.  – Eliot Schrefer

You can purchase the winners’ (and all of the 2021 Oregon Book Awards finalists’) books at Broadway Books!

SPECIAL AWARDS

Three additional special awards recognize significant contributions to Oregon’s literary culture. These individuals and organizations were nominated by community members and selected by the Oregon Book Awards & Fellowships Advisory Council.

WALT MOREY YOUNG READERS LITERARY LEGACY AWARD

PlayWrite, Inc. of Portland

THE STEWART H. HOLBROOK LITERARY LEGACY AWARD

Elizabeth Lyon of Eugene

C.E.S WOOD DISTINGUISHED WRITER AWARD

Molly Gloss of Portland

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