River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize Winner

April 20, 2018

River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize Winner

“Narcissa Prentiss Whitman died alone, her body crumpled like waxed paper, her head a cracked melon. She was shot a dozen times on a cold day in November 1847, likely whipped while she was still breathing, her body rolled into a ditch probably not all that far from a ditch I peered into a few months ago. This gully I focused on in the center of her Mission grounds was sun-dappled and quiet; that is, until I shifted my shoe too close to the edge and set off a mini-avalanche, a tumble of pebbles and dirt I hoped no one noticed, especially the young ranger wandering aimlessly around the three-acre compound in Eastern Washington. He might, because he had the authority to do so, tell me to step away. How would I explain to him what I was looking for in the ditch, and why I had to get close?”

With this memory, writer Debra Gwartney introduces I Am A Stranger Here Myself, the winning book manuscript for the 2017 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Award. Chosen by writer Gretel Ehrlich from among nearly two hundred River Teeth contest entrants, Gwartney’s book explores the compelling history of Narcissa Prentiss Whitman—reputedly the first Caucasian woman to cross the Rocky Mountains and the first to give birth to a white baby on the frontier. To Gwartney, Whitman was “a missionary killed so brutally by the people she’d come to ‘save’ that her death changed the very course of the settling of the West.”

To that end, I Am A Stranger Here Myself emerges as “lively memoir, half personal, half historical, but intertwined and connected in surprising ways. Fascinating,” said Gretel Ehrlich, who selected the prize-winning manuscript for the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize from among five finalists forwarded by River Teeth Co-Editors Joe Mackall and Dan Lehman.

In addition to a $1,000 cash prize, the contest’s winning book will be published by the University of New Mexico Press in 2019 as part of its River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize series. River Teeth Managing Editor Cassy Brown coordinates the annual contest.

In her winning manuscript, Gwartney excavates her deep fascination with Narcissa Prentiss Williams as well as counts the implications of capturing another’s life in story while discovering one’s own. “Even if years of studying her had made me more confused, more muddled, about her history than I had been at the beginning, I had without meaning to allowed her to be the person she was, faults and all,” she writes. “Terrible faults and all. I had let her be the main subject of her own story, and maybe that meant I could start being the subject of mine.”

Given this strategy, Gwartney spins her tightly woven story of the pioneering missionary Whitmans as well as Gwartney’s own family. Along the way, the writer searches for locks of Narcissa’s hair purportedly tucked away in an archives (she finds them), and drinks a bottle of Narcissa Red wine decanted near Whitman College (it’s not bad). Throughout, Gwartney’s research is deep and sustained. The book will appeal to anyone who cares about the American West, about manifest destiny, or about family story and mystery.

Debra Gwartney is the author of Live Through This, a 2009 memoir published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is also co-editor, along with her husband Barry Lopez of Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, and has published essays in many magazines, newspapers, and literary journals, including American Scholar, TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, Salon, Tampa Review, Kenyon Review, Crab Orchard Review, and the “Modern Love” column in The New York Times. She and Lopez live in Western Oregon.

The judges of this year’s River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize particularly noted Gwartney’s gift for sustained, deeply descriptive metaphors that reveal the writer’s dangerous joy at unlocking memory and history and at opening it to the reader on the page. Such was her experience when she and her daughter startled a panicked buck trapped in a storage space.

“I held on tight to my daughter as we huddled against the wall, both of us wide awake to the deer crashing and huffing through the chairs and tables, stacks of umbrellas, both of us willing this buck to find the opening, to liberate himself from this cage,” Gwartney writes.

“I pushed against the hard wall, not in fear, but in awe. I could do nothing for this trapped animal but stay out of its way, apart from sharp hooves and its mad, heated body that stormed from one end of the enclosure to the other. And then it was over. My daughter and I watched as the buck finally found an escape, as if boom, the way out was crystal clear, right there all along waiting to be seen. The deer leapt over the wrought-iron fence of the enclosure, one long, graceful thrust of release, and landed hard—with a messy grunt of exhalation—on the edge of the parking lot, its hoofs clattering against the asphalt. . . . Then it was gone, screaming into the darkness, its tawny coat shimmering under the pulsing beam of streetlamps.”

I Am A Stranger Here Myself is the sixteenth River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize winner since the contest was inaugurated in 2002. In various years, the series has won for its authors a PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for Art of the Essay, a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, a Library Journal prize, and a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, among many other honors and citations.

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