BY THOMAS FRISBIE
The Society of Midland Authors, born a century ago as literature was being redefined, is like a venerable punk band, emcee Robert K. Elder joked at the Society’s centennial book awards dinner on May 1.
Society co-founder and early president Harriet Monroe “was a champion of modern writing, and she threw out traditional ideas of ivory tower literature,” said Elder, author of six books, including Last Words of the Executed and The Film That Changed My Life. “… She along with folks like Carl Sandburg found themselves in a cultural revolt, a full-on sort of punk rock rejection of the modern status quo. So for members of this honored society, you might not have realized it, but you are a members in a 100-year-old punk band.”
The Society also serves an important community that nurtures writers, Elder said. “It’s amazing and noble that it’s lasted 100 years, and I hope it lasts 100 more.”
He then announced the start of the Society’s annual book awards in Chicago, which honor the organization’s choices for the best books by Midwest authors published in 2014.
In the Adult Fiction category, the winner was Robert Hellenga for The Confessions of Frances Godwin (Bloomsbury). The finalists were Kathleen Rooney for O, Democracy! (Fifth Star Press) and Lin Enger for The High Divide (Algonquin).
Of The Confessions of Frances Godwin, Judge Tony Romano said, “What really stuck with us with this book was the character, Frances Godwin. You wanted to spend time with her. She’s sarcastic, she’s shrewd, tough, irreverent, even when speaking to God. … We come to know her on many levels.”
Hellenga said, “The biggest risk I took in writing The Confessions of Frances Godwin was introducing God as an active character and allowing him to bully Frances in Latin.”
For O, Democracy!, Romano read Judge Bayo Ojikutu’s comments, which said in part, “Rooney strikes at the the winsome hope of a new lost generation, hopes given embodied voice by a narrator toiling on behalf an ambitious Illinois politico campaigning for high office. The novel is timely in ways both stark and covert, trenchant in its observations.” Rooney thanked the Society for the honor of being named a finalist.
The third Adult Fiction judge was Mark Eleveld.
In Adult Nonfiction, the winner was Jonathan Eig for The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution (W.W. Norton). The finalist was Michael McCarthy for Ashes Under Water: The SS Eastland and the Shipwreck That Shook America (Lyons Press). Judge Davis Schneiderman said this year’s competition presented “an astounding array of really fantastic nonfiction books.” Schneiderman called Eig’s book “a triumph of narrative nonfiction.”
“I was so inspired by reading this book that I started taking the Pill,” he joked. “Combining intensive research with compelling storytelling, the book is a grand mix of biography, politics, feminism, social science and medicine,” he said.
In his acceptance, Eig credited former SMA President Leon Forrest, who taught Eig’s freshman literature class at Northwestern. “This guy just lit up the room,” Eig said. “He was this revolutionary writer, a man who believed with the power of these words that he could change the world.”
The other judges for Adult Nonfiction were Ray E. Boomhower and Gregory Harms.
In Biography & Memoir, the winner was David Stuart MacLean for The Answer to the Riddle Is Me: A Memoir of Amnesia (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). The finalist was Ken S. Mueller for Senator Benton and the People: Master Race Democracy on the Early American Frontiers (Northern Illinois University Press). This was the second year that memoirs were included with biographies in the same category, Judge Bob Remer said. “This year something very special happened, and that is that a powerful memoir won for the first time,” he said.
Of the finalist, a biography, Remer said, “The book was very thorough, well-written, competently researched and using as its subject an important Democratic senator, Thomas Hart Benton, who was the first from Missouri, during a very significant transition period.”
The winner, about a fluke reaction to an anti-malarial drug, is “a powerful story” and “a book that enormously affected all three judges,” Remer said. “The story is often painful, often funny and frequently suspenseful as the author struggled to recreate, or appear to create, his memories with friends and loved ones. … The writing is so powerful and engaging that the word empathy does not do justice to how David grabs hold of the reader along this journey.”
In his acceptance, MacLean thanked the Society for giving an award to a memoir. “Memoir lives in a weird literary ghetto,” MacLean said. “It is not as concerned with beauty as poetry, it is not as smart as essays, it is not as complex as the novel. The memoir is relegated to those of us who have had things happen to them.”
The other judges for Biography & Memoir were John Hallwas and Re’Lynn Hansen.
In Children’s Fiction, the winner was Margi Preus for West of the Moon (Amulet Books). The finalists were Margaret Willey for Beetle Boy (Lerner Books); Crystal Chan for Bird (Atheneum Books for Young Readers), and John David Anderson for Minion (Walden Pond Press). Judge Lisa Bigelow said, “Minion offers a fresh perspective on the super hero genre. It has a wonderful dry wit and also a touching father-and-son story.”
Judge Laurie Lawlor called Bird “a very, very lovely book about a 12-year-old boy who was born on the day his brother died. … It is a wonderful, wonderful tribute to how you recover from grief.” Chan said she has discussed her book during many school visits, and the “really amazing thing [was] to see Bird kind of fly to different to communities and take off there.”
Laurie said Beetle Boy is “a wonderful young adult novel about a 19-year-old boy who has spent most of his life avoiding what happened when he was a kid.” For her part, Willey said, “I wrote Beetle Boy primarily because I feel very strongly about children who are used and conscripted by their parents for their own financial benefit and emotional benefit.”
West of the Moon, Laurie said, “is a rollicking adventure … we admired its elegant prose. … It’s just an exceptional read.” Taking a moment to congratulate the Society, Preus said, “I really want to congratulate you for keeping a group of writers in an organization for 100 years.” Her book, she said, “was inspired by the diary that my great-great grandmother kept as they emigrated from Norway to Wisconsin.” Preus said she keeps by her writing desk a quote from Graham Greene: “ ‘There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.’ And of course I want to write that moment when I write for children. … For children, sometimes the future is a book.”
The other judge for Children’s Fiction was Gary Schmidt.
In Children’s Fiction the winner was Ann Bausum for Stubby the War Dog: The True Story of World War I’s Bravest Dog (National Geographic Children’s Books). The finalists were Don Mitchell for The Freedom Summer Murders (Scholastic Press) and Ilene Cooper for A Woman in the House (and Senate): How Women Came to the United States Congress, Broke Down Barriers, and Changed the Country (Abrams Books for Young Readers).
The challenge in judging children’s books, judge Christine Taylor-Butler said, is that the category covers books for readers from birth to age 18. “We were trying to balance reading beautifully written picture books with stellar works written for older children. … As a full-time writer I know how much work and passion goes into producing a work of art.” Many people in the publishing industry do not regard children’s nonfiction as serious, she said. But in the SMA contest, “Every single one of the books that was submitted was brilliant.”
Freedom Summer Murders, which tells of the murder of three freedom fighters who were lynched in the South while fighting for civil rights, “is beautifully written,” she said. “It is told in multiple voices of people who lived in that era.”
Of A Woman in the House (and Senate), she said, “It is both informative and funny – and well researched.” Cooper said, “It was such a pleasure to do the research on this book.”
Of the winning book, Taylor-Butler said, “Using Stubby as the mechanism for talking about World War I was brilliant.” Saying she finds many of her best ideas by accident, Bausum said she stumbled across Stubby’s story while doing research on another book. “Despite my best efforts to forget him, he would not get out of my head,” she said. “You never really know where books are going to take us as readers or as writers. Sometimes they lead us to a stray dog. Sometimes they provide an unexpected comfort. And sometimes they lead to unexpectedly wonderful awards and a lucky year.”
The other judges for Children’s Nonfiction were Patricia Kummer and Andrew Medlar.
In Poetry, the winner was Grace Bauer for Nowhere All At Once (Stephen F. Austin State University Press). Elder read a note from Bauer, who was not present at the awards. “Some of us continue to follow our calling to hone our words and send them out into the world, hoping they will fall into the hands of readers for whom those words will resonate,” Bauer wrote. “… Ultimately, I hope the poems will illuminate a greater regard for all that is human.”
The judges for Poetry were Anne-Marie Cusac, Alice Friman and Martha Modena Vertreace-Doody.
Following the book awards, the Society presented its Distinguished Service Award to former President Robert Loerzel. President Meg Tebo said Loerzel has had “his hand in every single detail of everything the Society does. … Robert is the detail guy that keeps all of these wheels greased. He has shown a dedication to this Society that I don’t think anybody who knows him or who has interacted with him … could possibly disagree with.”
Loerzel said he was inspired by the recent presidents who preceded him and also by research he had done for a Centennial book about the Society. “I was humbled to read about all these people over the past 100 years, including some famous people like Harriet Monroe, and other less-famous people who really devoted their time to the Society,” Loerzel said.
For example, Alice Gerstenberg, a playwright who was one of the founding members in 1915 and who stayed active in the society until she died in the early 1970s, twice rallied the Society when other members were considering folding the organization, he said. “She wrote letters you can find in the archives of the Society of Midland Authors at UIC where she urged the officers basically to get their act together and keep going,” Loerzel said. “Let’s keep this organization going for another 100 years or more,” he added.
Also at the program, this year’s James Friend Award for Literary and Dramatic Criticism was presented by Tracy Friend to the Goodman Theatre’s Cindy Bandle Young Critics program.
Photos by Robert Loerzel. See our Facebook page for more photos from the awards banquet.