Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert
When journalist and author Elizabeth Kolbert got the news Monday that she had won a Pulitzer Prize for her book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, she was—not surprisingly—on assignment. Kolbert, a staff writer for The New Yorker, reports all over the world on environmental issues.
“I’m in a tiny little town in Germany, and my email started to go crazy,” Kolbert told The Daily Beast in a telephone interview Monday afternoon, about an hour after the announcement. “You always hope you will have some impact on the culture, but I didn’t expect the reception that the book got.”
The reception has been remarkable: The New York Times and Washington Post both named The Sixth Extinction one of the 10 best books of 2014. Nearly two dozen other publications named it one of the best books of the year. It won the LA Times Book Prize for science and technology this past weekend and was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist for general nonfiction. Since its hardcover debut in February 2014, The Sixth Extinction has sold more than 200,000 copies.
Kolbert said her husband and her editors at both Henry Holt and The New Yorker called to congratulate her soon after the news broke and that her email inbox was getting fuller by the minute. As we spoke, The Daily Beast could hear her other phone ringing in the background.
“I had written about climate change before, which is a very big subject,” Kolbert said. “I came to the book through the realization that climate change is a bigger story about how humans are changing the planet.”
The planet has undergone five previous mass extinctions, the last of which wiped out the dinosaurs. The sixth extinction—brought on by climate change and still very much under way—has resulted in the elimination of thousands of plant and animal species. Kolbert cites a recent study estimating that as much as 30 percent of species could disappear by 2050 and half of all species could disappear by the end of the century.
“Look around you,” one researcher tells Kolbert in the book. “Kill half of what you see. Or if you’re feeling generous, just kill about a quarter of what you see. That’s what we could be talking about.”
The Sixth Extinction won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, which is awarded for a book published during the previous year by an American author and which comes with a $10,000 prize. In its citation, the Pulitzer Prize committee called the book “an exploration of nature that forces readers to consider the threat posed by human behavior to a world of astonishing diversity.”
Gillian Blake, who is editor in chief of Henry Holt & Co. and was the editor on The Sixth Extinction, said she knew early on that Kolbert had found a powerful and resonant way to talk about the impact of climate change.
“I knew this was an extraordinary book, and everyone here knew it,” Blake said. “There was no question. She’s a terrific nonfiction writer—it’s a combination of the quality of the writing and the grand scale of what she’s doing here. We are talking about the potential end of humanity! To be able to do that in a way that is intellectually engaging and entertaining—and actually not depressing—I knew that she had pulled off something quite special.
As an editor previously at Bloomsbury, Blake had edited Kolbert’s The Prophet of Love, a collection of magazine profiles, and Field Notes From a Catastrophe, which was about the science of global warming. Blake became editor in chief at Henry Holt in 2011 and was quick to pick up The Sixth Extinction at auction based on Kolbert’s proposal and their history of working together.
“This is my third book with Betsy, so it’s pretty terrific to have been working with someone for so long and get to this point,” Blake said. “She wrote a terrific proposal. It was always going to be both the story of the extinction event that’s happening now but also a story about the history of humans’ understanding of extinction. The brilliant achievement of the book is that she managed to weave those two strands together in such a natural way.”
The Sixth Extinction received almost universal praise from book critics and starred reviews in Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal. In his review in The New York Times Book Review, environmental activist and former vice president Al Gore writes that “Elizabeth Kolbert has established herself as one of our very best science writers” and that she “has developed a distinctive and eloquent voice of conscience on issues arising from the extraordinary assault on the ecosphere[.]”
The other finalists for general nonfiction were Anand Gopal’s Afghanistan story No Good Men Among the Living and Evan Osnos’s Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China.
Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography
The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pope Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe, by David I. Kertzer
Much has been written about the Catholic Church’s complicity with Hitler before and during World War II, but now, thanks to this year’s Pulitzer Prize in biography for David I. Kertzer’s magisterial The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pope Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe, the full story of the church’s troubled and troubling marriage with Italian fascism has finally come to light.
Kertzer, a National Book Award finalist whose previous books include The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, The Popes Against the Jews, and Prisoner of the Vatican, spent seven years spelunking in newly opened Vatican archives, as well as fascist archives that include reports from Benito Mussolini’s spies in the highest reaches of the Vatican. Kertzer emerges from his research with a damning story to tell, full of intrigue and subterfuge and violence, sprinkled with colorful, devious, and ruthless characters. It’s history with all the virtues of high-octane fiction.
At the center of the story are Mussolini and Pope Pius XI, two men with many differences and a few critical things in common. While Il Duce was rough, thuggish, and profane, the pope was gentle, pious, and devout. But in addition to their simultaneous arrivals on the thrones of church and state in 1922, both men had hot tempers, both zealously guarded the prerogatives of power, and both distrusted democracy and despised communism. At the time, Italy was being rocked by violence between fascist thugs and socialists. Even priests were routinely beaten by the fascists. While Mussolini had spoken out against the power and holdings of the church, in his first address to Parliament in 1922 he asked for “God’s help.” The pope sensed that this was a man he could work with. As he told Mussolini at the time, “We have many interests to protect.”
With the signing of the Lateran Treaty in 1929, the church entered a Faustian bargain with the dictator. Mussolini recognized the Vatican as a sovereign state, restored many of its privileges, and even acquiesced to the pope’s demand that the police enforce Catholic morality. But Kertzer’s meticulous research shreds the popular myth that the church mounted a valiant but vain holding action against Mussolini’s rise to absolute power. Instead, Kertzer shows that Pius XI, in many ways, made Mussolini possible.
But as war loomed and the pope’s health began to fail—and as Mussolini drew ever closer to Hitler—Pius XI began to have second thoughts about the Faustian bargain he had struck, especially the church’s acceptance of Mussolini’s anti-Semitic religious laws. The pope lashed out, threatening to denounce the laws. But there were forces inside the Vatican, including Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, one of Mussolini’s most powerful allies, who were aghast that the pope might unravel a relationship that had been mutually beneficial for the Holy See and the state.
When the pope died in 1939, a speech critical of Mussolini’s racial laws was on his desk. Cardinal Pacelli, who would soon succeed him as Pope Pius XII, quietly made the speech disappear.
Kertzer’s book was praised by the 18-member Pulitzer board as “an engrossing dual biography that uses recently opened Vatican archives to shed light on two men who exerted nearly absolute power over their realms.” It comes as a welcome addition to the growing literature that exposes the Vatican’s less than angelic characters and practices. Here’s hoping Kertzer will now tackle Pope Pius XII’s controversial conduct before and during World War II.
The other finalists in this year’s biography-autobiography category were Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism by Thomas Brothers, and Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 by Stephen Kotkin.
Pulitzer Prize for History
Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People, by Elizabeth Fenn
A Pulitzer Prize may be little solace to the Native American nation called the Mandan, but it will likely be a boost to the somewhat under-reviewed Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People by the University of Colorado historian Elizabeth Fenn.
This is Fenn’s second critically acclaimed historical work. Her 2001 Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 was a masterful tale that captured the carnage wrought by the virus, both on a personal level and on a macro scale. She conveyed the suffering of individual victims, as well as the damage it caused to Native Americans in New Spain, the American Midwest, and the Pacific Coast.
In Encounters at the Heart of the World, Fenn zeroes in on the history of the Mandan people in what are today North and South Dakota. Little is known about this tribe that dominated the American Plains, as a stunning 90 percent of its members were killed by measles, whooping cough, and smallpox in the first half of the 19th century. After an 1837-38 epidemic, the tribe’s population total was down to about 300 people, from a high of 12,000.
The Mandans are known, if at all, for hosting Lewis and Clark that first winter on their journey west or from the paintings by George Catlin.
As Fenn pieces together the disparate parts of Mandan history, the richness of their culture emerges. Their towns, made up of incredibly sturdy earth lodges, were designed in a way that appears haphazard, but it was all to confuse raiders from rival tribes. When a man got married, he got not only his wife but also all her sisters—a practice that seems to have come about due to a shortage of men. While most of the Mandans succumbed to disease, the book is also a story of their rise and perseverance in its wake.
Fenn’s book is a compilation of historical fragments, as little has been written about the Mandans or their history. She weaves together tales from traders as well as climatology to form a cohesive narrative. The Mandans took full advantage of the rich land along the Missouri River and were advanced corn cultivators. The crop would be part of the tribe’s downfall, however, as the Norwegian rat would later dig into their storehouses and deplete the corn stores. Whereas most audiences are familiar with the story of smallpox and Native Americans as one of Western malice, in the case of the Mandans it was neglect. The U.S. government did not consider them important enough to vaccinate.
The reviews of Fenn’s work, though few, were unequivocal in their praise.
A review in The Wall Street Journal described it as a “compelling portrait” that “brilliantly overcomes the shortcomings of her written and archaeological sources.” The Nation’s Richard White placed it within a growing number of books focusing on more obscure parts of history and dubbed it a “profoundly spatial history.” The Denver Post called it a “welcome book … [piecing] together this sweeping history of the Mandans.” In The Daily Beast, Andrew Graybill declared that Fenn’s “felicitous prose style [brought] this forgotten world to life” and “an admiring but not romanticized account of the Mandans.”
And romanticization was a possibility. Fenn placed herself in the story, taking part in a summer religious ceremony, the Okipa, in 2011. That ceremony was famously depicted by George Catlin and involved rituals of fasting, mortification of the flesh, and one ritual called “Walking with Buffaloes” which had the younger married women in the tribe having sex with older male tribe members known as Buffalo Bulls. This was meant to bring bison herds closer. Fenn also made it clear that she became fond of the tribe during the time she spent there.
Why does the story of the Mandans matter? As Graybill wrote in his review for The Daily Beast, “the Mandan story is a reminder that even the most flourishing societies can be brought low, in virtually an instant, by the unpredictable workings of the natural world (to say nothing of human foes).” More important, the Mandans stand as a particularly stunning emblem of tenacity. Their mere existence in the face of such depopulation is astonishing.
Other finalists in this category were Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert and An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America by Nick Bunker.
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
It is tempting to call Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See a paragon of old-fashioned storytelling. Perhaps that’s because this beguiling story, set against the horrors of World War II, moves with such velocity. Or perhaps it’s because the story’s protagonists are young people barely out of childhood and surrounded by palpable evil. The story is reminiscent of fairy tales, the stories we, the readers, heard when we were first children, when we begged our parents and our older siblings to keep reading, to tell us what would happen next, to never turn off the light.
Doerr’s novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction on Monday, has been keeping people up late ever since it was published early last year. Reviewers loved it (The New York Times, which named it one of the 10 best books of 2014, called it “a vastly entertaining feat of storytelling”), and so did the public, which has kept it on the bestseller list for 49 weeks.
All the Light We Cannot See contains two main stories that eventually become one. In short, vivid chapters, Doerr crosscuts between Marie-Laure, a blind Parisian girl, and Werner, a German orphan from the Ruhr Valley whose uncanny skill with radios lands him a job with the German military. As different as they are, Marie-Laure and Werner are alike in one important respect: Each apprehends the world through “things we cannot see”: for the blind Marie-Laure, it is the world she knows through her other senses; for Werner, it is the world of radio waves and all the invisible connections it makes possible.
The war eventually brings both of them to Saint-Malo, where their separate narratives braid together. But the telling is more complex than that. Besides the two protagonists, we peer into the minds of family members, villagers, soldiers, French and German alike. The whole book is a patchwork of voices and points of view that gradually—and gracefully—coalesce into one multi-faceted narrative.
The author has told interviewers that the novel took him 10 years to write, that he visited Europe three times, read countless histories, and pored over thousands of photographs. But Doerr never lets his research get the upper hand. It always serves the narrative.
In the novel’s dazzling—and terrifying—opening pages, aerial bombardment pummels Saint-Malo, an ancient Breton coastal village occupied by the Nazis but in fact a world unto itself, an isthmus populated by people whose physical circumstances have left them psychically estranged and alienated: “We are Malouins first, say the people of Saint-Malo. Breton next. French if there’s anything left over.”
Here and elsewhere Doerr uses facts not to impress his readers but to make them shudder, as in this passage describing Frenchmen and Germans enduring an Allied bombing raid in 1944, just when the bombs begin to fall upon them: “A demonic horde. Upended sack of beans. A hundred broken rosaries. There are a thousand metaphors and all of them are inadequate: forty bombs per aircraft, four hundred and eighty altogether, seventy-two thousands pounds of explosives.” Doerr unerringly selects the precise detail necessary to bring alive a sentence or a scene, to buoy and buttress the reality he’s creating on the page.
In an interview with The Rumpus, Doerr said: “For me good fiction writing is all about transporting the reader, and my favorite novelists—Flaubert, Tolstoy, Woolf, Cormac McCarthy—all use senses beyond the visual to airlift me out of my own life and into someone else’s. In Marie’s sections, I made a challenge for myself in that I couldn’t rely as heavily on visual detail, but I tried to make up for that by rendering her world as fully and richly and colorfully as possible. The only way I knew how to do that was to go slowly, and to breathe, and to pay as much attention as I could to the experience of being alive. I figure: as fiction writers, we get to use smells and sounds and textures and thought patterns in ways that filmmakers cannot, so why not use them?”
Ultimately it is Doerr’s profound understanding of what fiction—and fiction alone—can do that sets his novel apart. The result is storytelling of a very high order.
Other finalists for this year’s Pulitzer in fiction include Richard Ford, for the novel Let Me Be Frank With You, Laila Lalami, for the novel The Moor’s Account, and Joyce Carol Oates for the story collection Lovely, Dark, Deep.