Cundill History Prize jury pushes the boundaries of history writing with finalists that are "Great Literature"

Published: 31 October 2018

Three exceptional American historians – writing passionate, innovative works of history about new frontiers at times when the world was undergoing dramatic change – have been named as finalists for the world’s leading history prize, run by McGill University.

Making the announcement on behalf of the jury at an exclusive event in Toronto this evening, eminent Canadian journalist and author Jeffrey Simpson said:

“These three books each demonstrate innovative and different ways of writing history, through exploration of climate change’s impact on American settlements, women’s struggles with the American frontier, and the modern relevance of a famous but sometimes forgotten novelist. They each meet the test of the Cundill History Prize: solid research, arresting narrative, and excellent prose.”

Winning US$10,000 each, the three finalists are now in the running for the grand prize, which raises the reward for the winning author to US$75,000 – the largest prize for a work of non-fiction in English.

From Bologna, Mark Gilbert, Chair of the Jury, said:

“Having invested thousands of hours into the research of their books, these outstanding historians have managed to turn their material into works of history that are also irresistible reads. Going beyond traditional, straight-forward history, the finalists for the 2018 Cundill History Prize are works that move the genre of history writing forward.”

Commenting further on this from Oxford, juror Peter Frankopan said:

“When you are writing history, you need a sprinkling of fairy dust, something that allows your prose to spring from the page, and to bring the reader with you. Our finalists are a masterclass in how this is done. These books are not just exceptional works of historical scholarship; they are also great literature.”

Antonia Maioni, Dean of Arts at McGill University, said:

“It is so exciting to have these three books as the finalists for the 2018 Cundill History Prize. They are all so different, and yet, they are all much alike in that they challenge us to look at history differently.”

The 2018 Cundill History Prize Finalists

Caroline Fraser
Prairie Fires - The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder
Little , Brown (UK)
Metropolitan Books (CAN, US)

Maya Jasanoff
The Dawn Watch - Joseph Conrad in a Global World
HarperCollins (UK)
Penguin Random House (CAN, US)

Sam White
A Cold Welcome - The Little Ice Age and Europe’s Encounter with North America
Harvard University Press (UK, CAN, US)

Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, already a 2018 Pulitzer Prize Winner in Biography, is the first comprehensive historical account of the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the “Little House on the Prairie” books.

Fraser takes on American mythology by looking at the settling of the American west through the lens of the life of one of the country’s most beloved authors. Spanning nearly a century of epochal change, from the Indian Wars to the Dust Bowl, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s dramatic life provides a unique perspective on American history.

Speaking from Boston, juror Caroline Elkins said:

“Caroline Fraser blends a fascinating social history of the US with histories of the environment and the family. She has gathered a vast amount of material, with a forensic eye for detail, and she has pulled it all together brilliantly. Setting the mythology of The Little House on the Prairie against the reality of life on the prairies makes for a fascinating history.”

The Harvard Professor of History Maya Jasanoff, previously a finalist for the Cundill History Prize, blends history, biography and travelogue as she follows the routes and stories of Joseph Conrad for The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World.

Jasanoff presents the Polish-British writer as someone who embodied the issues of his turbulent time: migration, terrorism, the tensions between global capitalism and nationalism, the promise and peril of a communications revolution. The Dawn Watch embarks on a spellbinding expedition into the heart of Conrad’s world – and through it our own.

Juror Jeffrey Simpson said:

“Maya Jasanoff shows Joseph Conrad as a guide through issues bigger than him. And, in so many ways, these are the same issues we are grappling with, in different ways, today. Extremely well plotted, technically brilliant and beautifully written, this is a work of history that presents us with new ways of reading about authors, and their times.”

With A Cold Welcome: The Little Ice Age and Europe’s Encounter with North America, the Ohio State University Associate Professor of History Sam White delivers an inter-disciplinary investigation into the decisive role the climate played in the success and failure of the first North American settlements.

Evidence from climatology meets the written historical record to show how the severity and volatility of the period of climate change called The Little Ice Age threatened to freeze and starve out the Europeans. As the world confronts an uncertain future from global warming, this innovative history is a timely reminder of the risks of a changing and unfamiliar climate.

Speaking from New York, juror Carol Berkin said:

“Sam White has written a well-judged, nuanced, and deeply humanistic book. As a scholar in his field, I am happy to say that, having read this work, I will have to revise every lecture I have ever given. A Cold Welcome makes us look very, very differently at something we thought we knew well.”

Run by McGill University, the international Cundill History Prize honours the abiding vision of its founder, the McGill alumnus F. Peter Cundill: One of the most highly regarded global investors of his time, the globe-trotting philanthropist believed passionately in well-written works of history as the best foundation for a better informed public debate.

The finalists were announced at an event at Massey College, Toronto.

The winner will be revealed at the Cundill History Prize Gala in Montreal, on November 15, alongside a series of events at McGill University including the annual Cundill History Prize Lecture, which will be delivered by the British historian Daniel Beer, who won last year’s prize for The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, his groundbreaking study of Siberian penal colonies.

The 2018 winner will join an alumni list of world-leading historians including Daniel Beer (2017), Thomas W. Laqueur (2016), Susan Pedersen (2015), Gary Bass (2014), Anne Applebaum (2013), Stephen Platt (2012), Sergio Luzzatto (2011), Diarmaid MacCulloch (2010), Lisa Jardine (2009), Stuart B. Schwartz (2008).

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Notes to Editors

About the 2018 Finalists
Caroline Fraser is the editor of the Library of America edition of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. She is the author of God’s Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church, which was named one of the best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review and the Los Angeles Times Book Review, and of Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution. Fraser’s writing has appeared in The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Times, and the London Review of Books, among other publications. She holds a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard University. Born in Seattle, Washington, Fraser currently lives in New Mexico.

Maya Jasanoff is Coolidge Professor of History at Harvard University. Her first book, Edge of Empire, was awarded the 2005 Duff Cooper Prize and was a book of the year selection in numerous publications including the Economist, Guardian and Sunday Times. Her second, Liberty’s Exiles, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Non-Fiction and was shortlisted for the 2011 Samuel Johnson Prize (now Baillie Gifford Prize). A 2013 Guggenheim Fellow, Jasanoff won the prestigious 2017 Windham-Campbell Prize for Non-Fiction. She was a finalist for the 2011 Cundill History Prize with Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World.

Sam White is associate professor of history at the Ohio State University and currently Norman Freehling Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan. He received his M.A. from the University of St. Andrews (Scotland) and Ph.D. from Columbia University. He is co-founder and director of the Climate History Network and steering committee member of the PAGES working group Climate Reconstruction and Impacts from the Archives of Societies (CRIAS). His other publications include The Climate of Rebellion in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and The Palgrave Handbook of Climate History (Palgrave, 2018). He has received awards from the American Society for Environmental History, the Middle East Studies Association, the Agricultural History Society, and the Ohio Academy of History, among other organizations.

About the Cundill History Prize
The Cundill History Prize recognizes and rewards the best history writing in English. A prize of US$75,000 is awarded annually to the book that embodies historical scholarship, originality, literary quality and broad appeal. The two runners-up each receive US$10,000. The Cundill History Prize is administered by McGill University in Montreal and awarded by five distinguished jurors. It honours the abiding passion for history of its founder, F. Peter Cundill, by encouraging informed public debate through the wider dissemination of history writing to new audiences around the world.

About McGill University
Founded in Montreal, Quebec, in 1821, McGill is a leading Canadian post-secondary institution. It has two campuses, 10 faculties, 12 professional schools, 300 programs of study and almost 41,000 students, including more than 9,700 graduate students. McGill attracts students from over 150 countries around the world, its 12,000 international students making up 30% per cent of the student body. Over half of McGill students claim a first language other than English, including approximately 20% of our students who say French is their mother tongue.

About F. Peter Cundill
F. Peter Cundill (1938-2011), a distinguished alumnus of McGill University, was a philanthropist, sportsman, diarist, and renowned global investor. A voracious reader and inveterate traveller, F. Peter Cundill had an abiding passion for history: he believed that it was possible to comprehend the present and arrive at a measured perspective about the future only by first understanding the past. This led him to found the Cundill History Prize. The Peter Cundill Foundation continues to support charities, research projects, and educational and enterprise gifts to young people.

About the 2018 jury
Mark Gilbert (Chair) is Professor of History and International Studies at the Bologna campus of the School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of the Johns Hopkins University. Educated at the University of Durham and the University of Wales (PhD 1990), Gilbert previously taught at Dickinson College, the University of Bath, and the University of Trento.

Carol Berkin is Presidential Professor of History, Emerita, of Baruch College & The Graduate Center, CUNY. She received her B.A. from Barnard College and her PhD from Columbia University where her dissertation received the Bancroft Award in 1972. She has written extensively on women’s history, the American Revolution, the creation of the Constitution, and the politics of the early Republic.

Caroline Elkins is Professor of History and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, Visiting Professor at Harvard Business School, Affiliated Professor at Harvard Law School, and the Founding Director of Harvard’s Center for African Studies. She has been a contributor to the New York Times Book Review, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Washington Post, and The New Republic.

Peter Frankopan is Professor of Global History at Oxford University, where he is founding Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research and Senior Research Fellow at Worcester College. He has been Stanley J. Seeger Visiting Fellow in Hellenic Studies at Princeton, Scaliger Visiting Professor at Leiden and Presidential Scholar at the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

Jeffrey Simpson is Canada’s most decorated journalist and the author of seven books. He has won all three of Canada’s leading literary prizes – the Governor-General’s award for non-fiction book writing, the National Magazine Award for political writing, and the National Newspaper Award for column writing. He has served as a juror for the Cundill History Prize on three previous occasions.

About the 2018 Shortlist

  • Red Famine - Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum
  • Grant by Ron Chernow
  • Prairie Fires - The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser
  • Behemoth - A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World by Joshua Freeman
  • A Deadly Legacy - German Jews and the Great War by Tim Grady
  • The Dawn Watch - Joseph Conrad in a Global World by Maya Jasanoff
  • The Pope Who Would Be King - The Exile of Pius IX and The Emergence of Modern Europe by David I. Kertzer
  • A Cold Welcome - The Little Ice Age and Europe’s Encounter with North America by Sam White
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