Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich was named winner of the $35,000 Aspen Words Literary Prize for her novel, “The Night Watchman.” The story is based on the life of her grandfather, who worked as a night watchman and carried the fight against Native dispossession from North Dakota to Washington, D.C.

Acclaimed Native American novelist, small bookstore owner and “The Night Watchman” author Louise Erdrich was honored on Wednesday with the Aspen Words Literary Prize.

The annual award, which Erdrich received during a virtual ceremony, honors a work of fiction that illuminates a vital contemporary issue and demonstrates the transformative power of literature on thought and culture. It is one of the largest literary prizes of its kind in the U.S. and includes a $35,000 award.

Opening the ceremony, Aspen Words Executive Director and author Adrienne Brodeur underscored the importance of literature right now more than ever.

“When we crafted this mission five years ago, we felt hopeful that it would stand the test of time, because books have always had this power. But we could have never predicted the critical roles that books would play in sustaining us through a global pandemic,” Brodeur said Wednesday evening. “If books are proof that humans are capable of magic, as Carl Sagan once said, then we indeed are in the presence of five magicians.”

Aspen Words literary award is presented in collaboration with media partner NPR Books. As part of the awards program, NPR’s “All Things Considered” co-host Mary Louise Kelly moderated a conversation with Erdrich and three of the finalist authors: Susan Abulhawa, “Against the Loveless World;” Rumaan Alam, “Leave the World Behind;” and Danielle Evans, “The Office of Historical Corrections: A Novella and Stories.”

The program also paid tribute to finalist Randall Kenan — the award-winning, gay Black writer and author of “If I Had Two Wings: Stories” — who died last year at the age of 57.

Erdrich’s “The Night Watchman” is based on the life of her grandfather, who worked as a night watchman and carried the fight against Native dispossession from North Dakota to Washington, D.C. Along with “The Night Watchman,” Erdrich is the author of 16 novels, volumes of poetry, children’s books and a memoir of early motherhood. Her fiction has won the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award twice and has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, Erdrich lives in Minnesota and is the owner of Birchbark Books, a small independent bookstore.

Aspen Words Literary Prize judge and author Luis Alberto Urrea during the ceremony Wednesday called “The Night Watchman” a “magisterial summation of [Erdrich’s] influential work while at the same time setting a new foundation for the future.”

“A historical novel that is also a story of love, a familial chronicle, a book about Indigenous community and anti-tribal animus, it opens worlds incessantly,” Urrea said. “It can move from comedic visions of eccentric boxers to terrifying stories of the disappearances of Native women, hints of ghost stories and a prophetic explosion of violence inside the nation’s capital city. It is a wise and transformative masterwork.”

When first presented with the award Wednesday, Erdrich said, “I don’t know even how to react. These are wonderful books, they’re just fantastic books, so I didn’t expect this at all.”

She accepted the prize on behalf of her grandfather, an activist who was “one of the dwindling number of first speakers” of the Ojibwe language.

“It’s really my grandfather’s book, so I can accept it in that way,” she said, adding that the award would “assist in the revitalization of the Ojibwe language.”

Brodeur called the “The Night Watchman” “such a stunning book” and informed Erdrich that Aspen Words would be purchasing several hundred copies for Aspen Words’ community read program. In partnership with Pitkin County Library, the nonprofit this summer will distribute free copies of the novel for community reads and to feature a valley-wide book club, panel discussions and other activities.

Aspen Institute in 2018 established AWLP, which is among the few literary prizes focused exclusively on fiction with a social impact, according to a statement from Aspen Words. Eligible works include novels or short story collections that address questions of violence, inequality, gender, the environment, immigration, religion, race or other social issues. In addition to the cash award, the winner of the AWLP receives a unique trophy designed by Anderson Ranch sculptor Leah Aegerter. The jury for the 2021 prize included Emily Bernard, Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Daniel Shaw and Urrea.

Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid earned the inaugural award in 2018 for his novel, “Exit West,” about migration and refugees.

Tayari Jones won in 2019 for her novel, “An American Marriage,” about racism and unjust incarceration. In 2020, Christy Lefteri won the literary prize for her work, “The Beekeeper of Aleppo,” about Syrian refugees.

Erica Robbie is a contributing editor for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at erica@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @ericarobbie.