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Winners of the 2012 Evans Biography and Handcart Awards Announced

Friday, Jul. 05, 2013


Barbara Warnes

Program Assistant

Utah State University

Phone: (435) 797-0299



LOGAN – Winners of the 2012 Evans Biography and Handcart Awards were announced recently by Utah State University’s Mountain West Center for Regional Studies. The literary prizes highlight the best new biographies with a focus on the Interior West and awards are presented for works published in the previous year.


Pulitzer-Prize winning writer Timothy Egan’s book “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis” captured the Evans Biography Award, and emerging author Erin Ann Thomas won the Handcart Award for her book “Coal in Our Veins: A Personal Journey.” The honors carry $10,000 and $2,500 prizes respectively, made possible through an endowment by the family of David Woolley Evans, founder of a Salt Lake City advertising and public relations agency, and Beatrice Cannon Evans, a historian and family genealogist.


“It is a measure of the health of the genre that we received an impressive 27 titles from 22 presses for the 2012 competition,” said Patricia Lambert, associate dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and director of the Mountain West Center, which administers the awards. “Four titles judged to be the most worthy contenders were sent on to the national jury for selection of the Evans Biography Award, while a compelling and unique work by an emerging author is chosen for the Handcart Award. These are always difficult decisions for our jury, and this year was no exception.”


The Evans Awards were established in 1983 and 1996 to foster excellence in writing about the people who have shaped the character of the Intermountain West or “Mormon Country” as the Evans’s called it — a region historically influenced by Mormon institutions and social practices. A national jury selects the winner of the Evans Biography Award and a regional jury selects the recipient of the Evans Handcart Award. The 2012 Evans Biography Award competition was especially close.


“All are fascinating, whether they chronicle the life and adventures of a lost figure, or reveal an unknown side of a well-known one, but which of these stories is most compelling and who amongst the talented slate of authors tells it most eloquently?” Lambert said. “One thing this competition makes clear is that biography of the American West is alive and thriving.”


Egan, a longtime journalist and opinion writer for the “New York Times,” won for his ability to produce a work of serious scholarship with popular appeal. His biography chronicled the life of Edward Curtis, a prominent photographer of the Seattle elite who abandoned his studio to document the everyday life of Native Americans in the American West at the turn of the 20th century. Curtis’s dream to photograph the country’s indigenous people before their traditions disappeared was backed by Theodore Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan. Over several decades Curtis shot more than 40,000 photographs, preserved 10,000 audio recordings and produced a documentary film.


“It is Egan’s scintillating prose and imaginative talents that elevate this superb biography to a prize-winning level,” members of the jury noted.  “[It] deserves to stand as one of the truly great renderings of an American personality and his moment in history.”


The book begins with the tale of Kickisomlo, “the last Indian of Seattle” living in squalor along Puget Sound. The city was named for her father, Chief Sealth, and became a place she wasn’t legally allowed to reside. Curtis recognized that photographing Princess Angeline, as she was later named, was important to capture how indigenous people in Seattle lived before it was lost to further Western expansion and government mandates.


“Already, official histories had established a consistent narrative of natives welcoming the passage of one era to the next,” Egan wrote. “The face of Edward Curtis’s last Indian of Seattle would say something else … Angeline was the start of the longest, most comprehensive and ambitious photographic odyssey in American history.”


Angeline connected him to other Indians who then connected him to others still living the old way. For three decades Curtis paid for access to witness their everyday life. In addition to taking photos, he began collecting tribal narratives and writing them down.


“I want to make them live forever,” Curtis once said. “It’s such a big dream I can’t see it all.”


Egan’s book may help to see this dream realized.


Handcart Award winner Erin Ann Thomas wrote “Coal in our Veins: A Personal Journey” as homage to her Welsh ancestors who worked underground in coal mines so that she could earn her living in the light. The book weaves historical research with her family’s personal account of the industry and opens with a description of a vintage, four inch tall cylindrical Justrite carbide lamp that rests on the author’s bookshelf. The lamp is one a miner in the 1930s would have used and serves to remind Thomas of the country’s longstanding relationship with coal — including her own. She grew up in Orem, Utah, the daughter of Welsh coal miners.


“I was always conscious that my surname had been passed down through generations of strong-backed and rough-handed men,” Thomas writes. “I have always been proud of this fact, preferring my ancestry of Welsh coal miners over a lineage of kings.”


Thomas describes walking though O’Hare Airport during a layover in 2006 and being confronted by a news story that would alter her path. Television screens showed the families of 13 miners trapped below the surface of the Earth in West Virginia. In Thomas’s luggage was a Christmas gift — a binder containing the genealogy of her family. She spent the next four years delving into the history of coal.


“This is a well-written book with a huge scope of research that weaves together and unfolds a family history throughout Wales, the coal region of Utah, and even connects to where the author lives now,” the five-member jury said. “The various threads are woven together in a way that makes it an enjoyable and an important book for Utah and the Interior West.”


The public is welcome to attend an awards ceremony where the winning authors will discuss their process on Friday, Sept. 20, 2013. The event will be held at the David B. Haight Alumni House on the campus of Utah State University in Logan, Utah.  It begins at 1:30 p.m., followed by a book signing and a chance to meet the award-winning authors.


The Mountain West Center for Regional Studies is a program area based in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Utah State University.


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