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Study of Race, Justice Wins National Book Award

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Special to The Times

Judges for the annual National Book Awards picked history over current events Wednesday and awarded the 2004 nonfiction prize to Ohio State University professor Kevin Boyle’s “Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age.”

Boyle’s book, published by Henry Holt & Co., is about the 1920s trial of a black Detroit doctor accused of killing a member of a white mob gathered outside his house. It won over four other finalists, including the federal government’s best-selling “The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States” (Norton), a narrative of the panel’s investigation into the 2001 attacks.

The fiction award went to Lily Tuck’s “The News from Paraguay” (HarperCollins), one of five relatively unknown finalists from New York whose selection over literary icons Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates elicited outrage among some critics -- a reaction that drew the five women into a close if sudden friendship.

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“I want to acknowledge my fellow ‘unknown’ finalists,” Tuck said, speaking to 700 people at the $1,000-a-plate banquet in a hotel ballroom near Times Square. “How allied we are, and how supportive we feel toward each other.”

Jean Valentine’s “Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems, 1965-2003” (Wesleyan University Press) won the poetry award, and Pete Hautman’s “Godless” (Simon & Schuster) won the young people’s literature award.

Winners received $10,000 and a statue. Finalists received $1,000 and a medal.

Boyle’s book explores Dr. Ossian and Gladys Sweet’s fateful 1925 choice to buy a house in a white Detroit neighborhood at a time when the Ku Klux Klan was a potential political force nationally.

Outraged white neighbors formed an unruly mob in the street outside the house one night shortly after the Sweets moved in. The couple were inside with about 10 friends and relatives, one of whom fired shots into the mob, killing one man and wounding another. Murder charges against Sweet, who was defended by Clarence Darrow, were dropped after the trial ended in a hung jury.

Boyle says the book explores the roots of current segregation.

“There was a moment in time when segregation happened ... in the 1910s and the 1920s. It was a deliberate process,” Boyle said after the ceremony. “We think segregation is gone because we don’t have separate drinking fountains, but we have continual segregation in American cities.”

The National Book Foundation, which oversees the awards, also gave its 2004 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to author Judy Blume for work that “has influenced and inspired countless children since the early ‘70s” and for her efforts against censorship -- begun when her teen novels were targeted for their realistic portrayals of family upheaval and sexual awareness.

“Being able to think for yourself is the best part of a moral education,” Blume said. “So it makes me sad that for some people, thinking for yourself is considered subversive.”

Blume, who also has written illustrated books for children and three novels for adults, urged people to sign petitions calling for revisions to the USA Patriot Act, under fire from civil libertarians for, among other elements, allowing authorities access to individuals’ records in libraries and bookstores.

Last year, the medal went to Stephen King, a divisive choice for those who believed the honor should go to literary writers over popular writers. This year’s National Book Awards controversy turned that view upside-down.

All five fiction finalists were stylized works criticized as being too literary and obscure -- none reportedly had sold more than 2,800 copies -- in a year that saw new books from such literary luminaries as Roth, Oates, John Updike and Cynthia Ozick, all former winners or finalists.

“It seems odd that there would be a debate about the rights of the unrecognized to be recognized,” said Joan Silber, whose “Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories” (Norton) was a finalist. “That seems silly to me, and I think we must look really silly to the rest of the world.”

Some argued that this year’s award could boost writers who toil away in the margins. Winning the award usually drives up sales, and one bookseller speculated that the effect could be even more pronounced for Tuck than it would have been for Roth’s critically acclaimed and best-selling “The Plot Against America” (Houghton Mifflin).

“At a certain point you have to wonder if anyone hasn’t bought the Roth book yet,” said Doug Dutton, owner of the Dutton’s bookshops in Brentwood and Beverly Hills. “What a wonderful thing to see five interesting, different writers who aren’t literary household names.”

Special correspondent Beale reported from New York, and Times staff writer Martelle reported from Los Angeles.


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