NEW YORK — Works set in the American West and Midwest won major prizes at the 2006 National Book Awards on Wednesday, in a year when the fiction and nonfiction categories included two nominees inspired by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 or their aftermath.
The nonfiction prize went to Timothy Egan for his look back at an earlier American crisis, "The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl," published by Houghton Mifflin.
"We are a storytelling nation ... and this story was nearly dead," Egan said as he accepted the award at a gala dinner at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York's Times Square. He noted that the survivors of the Dust Bowl are in their 80s now.
The fiction prize went to Richard Powers' "The Echo Maker," published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Powers' novel concerns the survivor of a truck accident in Nebraska, set against the Platte River's huge spring migrations.
"It does a number on your brain chemistry," Powers said as he accepted his award. "We live in dangerously convinced times where many are increasingly eager to simplify all complex readings."
The poetry award went to "Splay Anthem" by Nathaniel Mackey, published by New Directions. Mackey paid tribute in his acceptance speech to his poetry mentor, William Carlos Williams.
The award for young people's literature went to M.T. Anderson for "The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party," the tale of a slave in revolutionary Boston, published by Candlewick Press. In accepting, Anderson praised the nominating panel for including for the first time in the National Book Awards' 57-year history a work of graphic fiction, Oakland comic artist Gene Luen Yang's "American Born Chinese."
"I am just really glad we are leading the charge," he said of the nomination of a story told through its artwork as much as its words.
Speaking before the awards ceremony, Yang described his nomination as a step forward for all graphic artists. "It is a recognition of work done over the last 10 years," he said.
"Art Spiegelman once made a promise that comics could be literature," he said. "I think this shows we're getting there."
For Yang, literature is a night job. He teaches computer science at a high school in Oakland, comes home for "family time" between 6 and 9 p.m. -- his wife teaches fourth grade -- then finally sits down to his art.
"How much I do depends on the night," he said. "I've gone all the way till 1. But sometimes I'm too tired after an hour."
His nominated work, "American Born Chinese," is about a Chinese American boy who moves from San Francisco's Chinatown to the suburbs.
Other nominees in the fiction category were "Only Revolutions" by Mark Z. Danielewski, a love story in free verse narratives spoken by two 16-year-old vagabonds; "A Disorder Peculiar to the Country" by Ken Kalfus, about a marriage dissolving in the wake of 9/11; "Eat the Document" by Dana Spiotta, about a radical fugitive from the 1970s; and "The Zero" by Jess Walter, about a police officer who survives a terrorist attack.
In nonfiction, the other nominees were "At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68" by Taylor Branch, the concluding volume of a three-part historical study of Martin Luther King Jr. and his times; "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone" by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, about life in Baghdad's Green Zone enclave; "Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present" by Peter Hessler, about 21st century China; and "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11" by Lawrence Wright, a history of the international events culminating in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
In poetry, the other finalists were "Averno" by Louise Gluck, the poet's eleventh collection; "Chromatic" by H.L. Hix, probing the conflicting emotions generated by human desire; "Angle of Yaw" by Ben Lerner, focusing on public space, speech and the poetic implications of aerial photography; and "Capacity" by James McMichael, examining human needs for speech, shelter, sex, water and other staples.
In the young people's literature category, the other nominees were "Keturah and Lord Death" by Martine Leavitt, about a girl who tries to find her true love in 24 hours in order to hold off Lord Death; "Sold" by Patricia McCormick, about a Nepalese girl sold into slavery; and "The Rules of Survival" by Nancy Werlin, about a son who tries to save his family at a time of crisis.
The National Book Foundation, which oversees the awards, also presented a medal for distinguished contribution to American letters to Adrienne Rich, "in recognition of her incomparable influence and achievement as a poet and nonfiction writer."
Times staff writer Josh Getlin contributed to this report.
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These are the finalists and winners of the 2006 National Book Awards, announced in New York. The winners each receive $10,000 and the finalists $1,000.