Rosemary Sullivan's comprehensive biography of Joseph Stalin's daughter has won another major literary prize. Stalin's Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva was named the winner of the British Columbia National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction on Thursday.
"This, I did not expect and I'm a bit thrown," Ms. Sullivan said in accepting the $40,000 award.
"I have to say it's a fat book, it seems specialized," she told The Globe and Mail afterward. "I thought it would have its little life, but it's maybe touched something which has to do with our fascination with Russia right now and the triumph of a woman fighting against such odds and surviving."
The jury citation noted the book delivers "sharply observed and meticulously researched revelations" about Ms. Alliluyeva, who was born in 1926, lost her mother to suicide when she was six-and-a-half, shockingly defected to the United States in 1967, and died in poverty in 2011 – then living in Wisconsin as Lana Peters. "It provides unique insights, and deeply contributes to our understanding of many significant events of the past century," the citation continues.
The page-turning, door-stopper of a book – more than 600 pages, plus nearly 50 pages of endnotes – also won the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Non-Fiction last fall. This week it was shortlisted for the 2016 PEN Literary Awards in the biography category.
Ms. Sullivan, who was born in Valois, Que., in 1947, said she was a good person to write this book because she's Canadian and a woman.
"This needed to be written by a woman to understand not the dictator's son, but the dictator's daughter," she said before being announced the winner. "As a Canadian, I could stand outside the power struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War and not feel that I had to take sides."
The jury for this prize, which is presented by the British Columbia Achievement Foundation, was made up of Simon Fraser University chancellor and author Anne Giardini, writer Richard Gwyn and Vancouver Writers Fest artistic director Hal Wake.
There was some discomfort at the event when, during his opening remarks, B.C. Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development Peter Fassbender referred repeatedly to the books of non-fiction as "novels." When he returned to the stage at the end of the ceremony to announce the winner, Mr. Fassbender – previously B.C.'s education minister – repeated the error. "I think we've heard some amazing stories behind each one of the novels," he said.
The other shortlisted books were Stephen Harper by Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson, Emily Urquhart's Beyond the Pale: Folklore, Family, and the Mystery of Our Hidden Genes and Sheila Watt-Cloutier's The Right to be Cold: One Woman's Story of Protecting her Culture, the Arctic and the Whole Planet. Each of these authors received $5,000.
Mr. Ibbitson joked in his speech that whatever you think of Stephen Harper, wasn't it cool that his biography was written by a gay guy who dedicated it to his husband?