U.S. National Book Awards go to slave, outlaw books

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A book about a slave family with ties to U.S. President Thomas Jefferson and novel about a notorious Florida outlaw were among the winners at America’s 59th annual National Book Awards on Wednesday.

Annette Gordon-Reed won the Nonfiction Award for “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family” while Peter Matthiessen took the Fiction Award for “Shadow Country.”

Gordon-Reed’s book, published by W.W. Norton & Company, tells the story of a slave family, the Hemingses, from its origins in Virginia in the 1700s to its dispersal after Jefferson’s death in 1826.

An earlier book by Gordon-Reed concluded that Jefferson had fathered children by his slave Sally Hemings and DNA testing later established a genetic link between the two families.

“It’s wonderful to have the book come out at this time,” said Gordon-Reed, referring to the election of Barack Obama as the first black U.S. president. “All Americans are on a great journey now.”

Matthiessen’s “Shadow Country,” published by Modern Library, reimagines the legend of Everglades sugar planter and notorious outlaw E.J. Watson, who drives himself relentlessly toward his own violent end at the hands of neighbors.

The judges wrote that the book “is an epic of American rise and descent -- poetic, mythic, devastating.”

The Poetry Award went to Mark Doty for “Fire to Fire: New and Collected Poems,” published by HarperCollins, which mixes Doty’s new work with the best from his previous seven books.

“In this generous retrospective volume a gifted young poet has become a master,” the judges said.

Judy Blundell won the Young People’s Literature Award for “What I Saw and How I Lied,” published by Scholastic, a tale of a teenage girl’s complicated and deceptive relationship with an ex-soldier who served in her father’s World War Two company.

“This novel has all the hallmarks of a classic noir, but Judy Blundell shifts these tropes into the equally elusive and shady realm of adolescence,” the judges said.

There were five finalists in each category and each winner gets $10,000. To be eligible for the awards, the books had to be published in the United States between December 1, 2007 and November 30, 2008 and written by a U.S. citizen.

Past winners include such critically acclaimed names as John Updike, Philip Roth and Ralph Ellison. In 2008, more than 200 publishers submitted 1,258 books for the 2008 awards, an increase of 6 percent from 2007.

The Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters was awarded to Maxine Hong Kingston, whose award-winning nonfiction books include “The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts” and “China Men.”

The 2008 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community went to Barney Rosset, who published for the first time in the United States authors including Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet and Tom Stoppard.

Editing by Eric Walsh