Novelist Attica Locke has been named the winner of this year’s Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, considered the highest honor for literature by African-American writers. She won the award for only her second novel, The Cutting Season (2012), a character-driven murder-mystery set on a former plantation located along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
The award, administered by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, comes with a $10,000 prize and will be given to Locke on January 23 at the Manship Theatre in Baton Rouge. It is named for Ernest Gaines, one of Louisiana’s most well-respected authors, whose works include The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), which was made into a legendary TV movie starring Cicely Tyson, and A Gathering of Old Men (1983). He is also the author of A Lesson Before Dying (1993), an early Oprah Book Club selection and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.
The Cutting Season tells the story of Caren Gray, who manages Belle Vie, a former plantation turned tourist attraction and museum that is often used for weddings and other large-scale events. A large agricultural corporation has been purchasing the farmland surrounding the plantation, but its intentions are unclear. The action rises when a female migrant worker is found murdered in a shallow grave just outside the plantation fence. Gray finds herself pulled into the investigation as she comes to believe the police are chasing the wrong suspect. Her curiosity and desire to save the plantation — and the new life she has started to create there for herself and her daughter — lead her into the plantation’s sordid past and an unsolved murder from a century earlier that, surprisingly, seems to have connections to the current murder. Gray is an especially sympathetic and likeable protagonist, one whom many readers hope to encounter in another Locke novel.
Locke came to the reading public’s attention with her gripping debut novel, Black Water Rising (2009), which was nominated for an Edgar Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the NAACP Image Award. It was also short-listed for the UK’s prestigious Booker Prize. As a screenwriter, she has written scripts for Paramount, Warner Bros., Disney, Twentieth Century Fox, Jerry Bruckheimer Films, Dreamworks, and HBO.
Novelist Tayari Jones said, “The Cutting Season is a novel about the shifting definitions of family, the persistent pull of history, the sterling promise of home, and the stunning power of love. It pulled me in and held me close to the very last page.”
The San Francisco Bay Guardian raved about Locke’s first novel, writing, “Black Water Rising reads like a hard-boiled thriller, but the real trick resides in Locke’s ability to personalize an overlooked part of American history and show how far-reaching, how entrenched, it is in today’s social, political, and cultural fabric.” The New York Times said, “Locke is able to write with a serious, stirring moral urgency akin to that of George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane.”
Ironically, her two novels are published by Dennis Lehane Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.