Past Pulitzers: Prize winners from years past make compelling reading

Janet Clapp

One hundred years ago the first Pulitzer Prize was awarded. Established by newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, this award for excellence is given to American writers. Finalists are announced in April and the winners announced in May. Here are four distinguished novels that have won the fiction award in years past.

0413-rhv-booktalessouthpaciTales of the South Pacific

by James A. Michener

(1948 winner) In this assembly of tales, Michener recounts military life in the South Pacific during World War II. “The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we called islands. Coconut palms nodding gracefully toward the ocean. Reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description. I wish I could tell you about the sweating jungle, the full moon rising behind the volcanoes, and the waiting. The waiting. The timeless, repetitive waiting. But whenever I start to talk about the South Pacific, people intervene.” Stories revolve around characters like Luther. “Luther was what we call in the Navy a ‘big dealer.’ Ten minutes after he arrived at a station he knew where to buy illicit beer, how to finagle extra desserts, what would be playing at the movies three weeks hence, and how to avoid night duty.” Rather than a chronicle of events, this book is about the people. “They will live a long time, these men of the South Pacific. They had an American quality. They, like their victories, will be remembered as long as our generation lives. After that, like the men of the Confederacy, they will become strangers.”

0413-rhv-bookhousemadedawnHouse Made of Dawn

by N. Scott Momaday

(1969 winner) After World War II, Native American Abel returns to live on a New Mexico reservation with his grandfather. “He heard the sharp wheeze of the brakes as the big bus rolled to a stop in front of the gas pump, and only then did he give attention to it, as if it had taken him by surprise. The door swung open and Abel stepped heavily to the ground and reeled. He was drunk, and he fell against his grandfather and did not know him.” Through a non-linear narrative of recollections, experiences and Kiowa stories, Momaday portrays the troubled life of a young man both on the reservation and in the city. “This — everything in advance of his going — he could remember whole and in detail. It was the recent past, the intervention of days and years without meaning, of awful calm and collision, time always immediate and confused, that he could not put together in his mind.”

0413-rhv-bookforeignaffairsForeign Affairs

by Alison Lurie

(1985 winner) Vinnie Miner and Fred Turner, English professors from the same college, are in England for research purposes. “On a cold blowy February day a woman is boarding the ten a.m. flight to London, followed by an invisible dog. The woman’s name is Virginia Miner: she is fifty-four years old, small, plain, and unmarried — the sort of person that no one ever notices, though she is an Ivy League college professor who has published several books.” Miner believes England to be her true home and is delighted to return. “England, for Vinnie, is and has always been the imagined and desired country…She also felt that she was a nicer person there and that her life was more interesting.” Alternating chapters follow Turner: “Fred Turner knows, of course, that he is a handsome, athletic-looking young man, the type that directors employ to battle carnivorous vegetables. It would be going too far to say that he has never derived any satisfaction from this fact, but he has often wished that his appearance was less striking…in his profession beauty is a considerable handicap….In English, his appearance was held against him: he was suspected, quite unfairly, of being vain, self-centered, unintellectual, and unserious.” He has just split up with his wife and is not at all glad to be in England. “Fred is alone for five months in a London empty of joy and meaning, where a cold drizzly rain seems to fall perpetually both within and without. He is more steadily miserable than he has ever been in his life.” Miner and Turner each experience the unexpected while abroad.

0413-rhv-bookshippingnewsThe Shipping News

by E. Annie Proulx

(1994 winner) “Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns.” When his wife dies, he moves with his aunt and his two girls to Newfoundland, where he gets a job writing the shipping news for a local newspaper. “Nothing was clear to lonesome Quoyle. His thoughts churned like the amorphous thing that ancient sailors, drifting into arctic half-light, called the Sea Lung; a heaving sludge of ice under fog where air blurred into water, where liquid was solid, where solids dissolved, where the sky froze and light and dark muddled.” Quoyle has never been a confident man and his newspaper work makes him think in headlines: “Drumroll of rain. Stupid Man Does Wrong Thing Once More.” As he settles into his new home, he learns about his family and ancestral homeland.

The Rutland Free Library has the titles above and many other award-winning books. For a list of past Pulitzer Prize winners, go to

Happy reading!

Janet Clapp

Janet Clapp is an adult services librarian at Rutland Free Library.

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