The 101st class of Pulitzer Prizes have been announced! Each year, the Pulitzer Prize Board uses a rigorous selection process to honor America’s very best journalistic and creative work. Last year’s winners included The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen for fiction and Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda for drama. We’ve highlighted some of this year’s prize winners below, complete with publishers’ descriptions.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood — where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned — Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.
In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor — engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.
Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey — hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.
Blood in the Water by Heather Ann Thompson
On September 9, 1971, nearly 1,300 prisoners took over the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York to protest years of mistreatment. Holding guards and civilian employees hostage, the prisoners negotiated with officials for improved conditions during the four long days and nights that followed.
On September 13, the state abruptly sent hundreds of heavily armed troopers and correction officers to retake the prison by force. Their gunfire killed 39 men — hostages as well as prisoners — and severely wounded more than one hundred others. In the ensuing hours, weeks, and months, troopers and officers brutally retaliated against the prisoners. And, ultimately, New York State authorities prosecuted only the prisoners, never once bringing charges against the officials involved in the retaking and its aftermath and neglecting to provide support to the survivors and the families of the men who had been killed.
Drawing from more than a decade of extensive research, historian Heather Ann Thompson sheds new light on every aspect of the uprising and its legacy, giving voice to all those who took part in this forty-five-year fight for justice: prisoners, former hostages, families of the victims, lawyers and judges, and state officials and members of law enforcement. Blood in the Water is the searing and indelible account of one of the most important civil rights stories of the last century.
The Return by Hisham Matar
When Hisham Matar was a 19-year-old university student in England, his father was kidnapped. One of the Qaddafi regime’s most prominent opponents in exile, he was held in a secret prison in Libya. Hisham would never see him again. But he never gave up hope that his father might still be alive. “Hope,” as he writes, “is cunning and persistent.”
Twenty-two years later, after the fall of Qaddafi, the prison cells are empty and there is no sign of Jaballa Matar. Hisham returns with his mother and wife to the homeland he never thought he’d go back to again. The Return is the story of what he found there. It is at once an exquisite meditation on history, politics, and art, a brilliant portrait of a nation and a people on the cusp of change, and a disquieting depiction of the brutal legacy of absolute power. Above all, it is a universal tale of loss and love and of one family’s life. Hisham Matar asks the harrowing question: How does one go on living in the face of a loved one’s uncertain fate?
Evicted by Matthew Desmond
In this brilliant, heartbreaking book, Matthew Desmond takes us into the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee to tell the story of eight families on the edge. Arleen is a single mother trying to raise her two sons on the $20 a month she has left after paying for their rundown apartment. Scott is a gentle nurse consumed by a heroin addiction. Lamar, a man with no legs and a neighborhood full of boys to look after, tries to work his way out of debt. Vanetta participates in a botched stickup after her hours are cut. All are spending almost everything they have on rent, and all have fallen behind.
The fates of these families are in the hands of two landlords: Sherrena Tarver, a former schoolteacher turned inner-city entrepreneur, and Tobin Charney, who runs one of the worst trailer parks in Milwaukee. They loathe some of their tenants and are fond of others, but as Sherrena puts it, “Love don’t pay the bills.” She moves to evict Arleen and her boys a few days before Christmas.
Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare. But today, most poor renting families are spending more than half of their income on housing, and eviction has become ordinary, especially for single mothers. In vivid, intimate prose, Desmond provides a ground-level view of one of the most urgent issues facing America today. As we see families forced into shelters, squalid apartments, or more dangerous neighborhoods, we bear witness to the human cost of America’s vast inequality—and to people’s determination and intelligence in the face of hardship.
Based on years of embedded fieldwork and painstakingly gathered data, this masterful book transforms our understanding of extreme poverty and economic exploitation while providing fresh ideas for solving a devastating, uniquely American problem. Its unforgettable scenes of hope and loss remind us of the centrality of home, without which nothing else is possible.
Have you read any of these books? If not, which one are you interested in reading? Share in the comments!
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