"Love Medicine," by Louise Erdrich, a first novel about the present-day members of a Chippewa tribe living on a reservation in North Dakota, won the fiction award of the National Book Critics Circle yesterday in New York.
The award for general nonfiction went to Freeman Dyson's "Weapons and Hope," a plea by the physicist for new ways to avert nuclear catastrophe.
Three other books won awards from the organization of the nation's literary critics and editors. These were Joseph Frank's "Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-59" (for biography); Robert Hass' "Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry" (criticism); and Sharon Olds' "The Dead and the Living" (poetry).
NBCC's board of directors, representing 381 members, voted the awards in an all-day session. The annual board meeting to select the winners traditionally has been the occasion for fierce debate.
Yesterday, Erdrich's "Love Medicine" was the runaway winner in the fiction category, beating its only major competitor, Alison Lurie's "Foreign Affairs," by a sizable margin. The Lurie novel was praised as the "best book she's ever written" but Erdrich's work was hailed as "extraordinary." One director said a failure to have read it would have been "a vast loss." Another said "the intensity of the language left me wrung out."
The general nonfiction and biography awards were the occasion of the most disagreement.
"Weapons and Hope" won the award for nonfiction despite spirited competition from John Edgar Wideman's "Brothers and Keepers" -- a memoir of two brothers' separate roads from the ghetto, one gaining academic and literary distinction, the other going in jail for life -- and David S. Wyman's "The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945." NBCC directors said the Dyson book displayed a "nobility of purpose" and "lightness of prose style."
In the biography/autobiography category, the second volume of Princeton professor Frank's biography of Dostoevsky bested Eudora Welty's autobiography, "One Writer's Beginnings," and Susan Cheever's memoir of her father John Cheever, "Home Before Dark." NBCC board members chose Frank's book because of its "authoritative" research and "solid writing."
In a year when none of the "heavies" of American literature was represented in the fiction balloting, Erdrich was the overwhelming favorite. Her characters in "Love Medicine" are united by the common experience of being Indians, by the drink and violence on the reservation and a common distrust of the white man. However, "Love Medicine" is really about the mysterious workings of love. The title stems from the attempt by a neglected wife to find a potion that will win her husband back.
Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, now lives in New Hampshire.
The British-born Dyson, now at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, worked on weapons research for the RAF during World War II. Arguing that spiritual choices should outweigh technical developments in arms control, Dyson points to World War I "as a gigantic parable of the war we are trying to avoid."
The NBCC directors also voted a special award for excellence to the Library of America, publishers of the collected works of American classic authors in uniform hardcover editions.
Among the most coveted prizes in American publishing, the NBCC awards will be presented at a ceremony Jan. 31 in New York at the New-York Historical Society. Brigitte Weeks, editor of The Washington Post's Book World, is president of the NBCC, which this year marks its 10th anniversary.