Missouri author Phong Nguyen will receive the Jan Garton Prairie Heritage Book Award for his novel The Adventures of Joe Harper in a virtual ceremony hosted by the Volland Store on December 10, 2020. This promises to be a very interesting presentation with opportunity for questions and comments at the end. While the gallery is closed to visitors, The Volland Store is available virtually. Books will be available for order through The Volland Store.
The award was endowed by a bequest to Prairie Heritage, Inc. by Jan Garton (1949-2009). Garton was a beloved Kansas conservationist recognized nationally for her work to restore water rights to Cheyenne Bottoms, a Wetland of International Importance in central Kansas. The award—given periodically for a book that illuminates in new ways the heritage of the prairie states—comes with a cash prize of $1000.
The Adventures of Joe Harper is centered on a character that appears peripherally in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer—a boy who had played pirates with Tom on an island in the Mississippi. Phong Nguyen has Joe and Tom growing up to become actual pirates, pillaging and plundering under Tom’s leadership until Tom abandons Joe on a desert island. Tom and Joe separately find their way back to the United States and their paths diverge, only to converge again in the surprising ending of the novel. Always in search of thrills and gain, Tom becomes a US Marshal, while a remorseful Joe takes to the rails in search of a hermit’s cave where he can suffer for his sins. His mentor in the hobo life is a mysterious Chinese-American named Lee who protects Joe but also uses Joe for his own secret purpose. Like Huck and Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Joe and Lee are kinder than many of the institutions they encounter in one episode after another as they travel across the country. Joe’s naïve observations are delightfully humorous—but the reader is also meant to pick up on the biting implications of what Joe observes as he travels through a post-Civil-War culture that is rife with racism, hatred of the poor, and abuse of power.
Phong Nguyen is a Professor and Miller Family Endowed Chair of Writing; Director of Creative Writing at the University of Missouri. His other titles include, Roundabout: An Improvisational Fiction (Moon City Press, 2020) and two story collections: Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2014 and now in paperback via Mastodon Publishing) and Memory Sickness and Other Stories (Elixir Press, 2011). He is co-editor, with Dan Chaon and Norah Lind, of the book Nancy Hale: On the Life & Work of a Lost American Master (Pleiades Press/LSU Press, 2012), part of the Unsung Masters Series. He served as chief editor and fiction editor for Pleiades: Literature in Context for eleven years, during which time he published the early work of some of the most celebrated fiction-writers of the last decade.
Previous winners of the Jan Garton Prairie Heritage Book Award include Ron Parks’ The Darkest Period: The Kanza Indians and Their Last Homeland, 1846-1873 (U of Okla. P, 2014); Ian Michael Spurgeon’s Soldiers in the Army of Freedom: The 1st Kansas Colored, the Civil War’s First African American Combat Unit (U of Okla. P, 2014); Iralee Barnard’s Field Guide to the Common Grasses of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska U of Ks P, 2014); Brent Campney’s This Is Not Dixie: Racist Violence in Kansas, 1861-1927 (U of Ill. P, 2015); and Michael John Haddock, Craig C. Freeman, and Janét Bare’s Kansas Wildflowers and Weeds (U of Ks. P, 2015).
For more information on the book award visit the Prairie Heritage website.