“Blackouts” by Justin Torres beat out “This Other Eden,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Paul Harding’s novel inspired by the sad history of Maine’s Malaga Island, and three of works of fiction for the top honor at the 2023 National Book Awards ceremony in New York on Wednesday night.

The other finalists for the National Book Award for fiction were: “Chain-Gang All-Stars” by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, “Temple Folk” by Aaliyah Bilal and “The End of Drum-Time” by Hanna Pylväinen.

Paul Harding, author of This Other Eden. Photo by Sam Harding

Actor LeVar Burton hosted the event administered by the National Book Foundation, and television celebrity Oprah Winfrey was a guest speaker and talked about the influential power of books and the dangerous increase in national book ban efforts. The 74th award ceremony was held at the Cipriani Wall Street venue in New York City. Poet Rita Dove and Paul Yamazaki, a longtime bookseller at San Francisco’s famed City Lights store, received honorary medals.

“This Other Eden” is based on the shameful history of how Maine forcibly removed all residents of a mixed-race fishing community on a small island off the coast of Phippsburg in 1912, a time when racist beliefs about genetics were shaping policy in the United States.

Harding’s book was published in January and has met with praise, but also has been criticized by some who are familiar with the island’s history.

“It’s being awarded and being touted as a great piece of work,” Charmagne Tripp, whose grandfather was from Malaga Island and who has decided not to read the novel, told the Press Herald in an interview. “The fear is that people will believe that is actually what the people of Malaga were like, and instead of going and doing their own research or finding out more, that will perpetuate the negative light that our community was looked at in. I think that’s really hurtful to the folks that are descended from that island.”


State archivist Kate McBrien said “This Other Eden” contains enough fact to be recognizable as Malaga Island and enough fiction to resurrect myths that historians have been working for years to disprove.

Harding defended the book, telling the Press Herald that he deliberately set aside his research when he began writing his novel. None of the characters are based on real people, he said, and he did not consult with descendants or historians during the decade in which he worked on the book. That’s because he did not set out to write nonfiction or even historical fiction. He wanted to write about humanity.

“This Other Eden” by Paul Harding. W. W. Norton/Mariner Books/W. W. Norton via Associated Press

Malaga is a 42-acre island in the New Meadows River, just off Phippsburg’s western shore. Artifacts, documents and photographs indicate it was home to a fairly ordinary coastal settlement, except for the fact that Black, white and mixed-race families all lived and worked together. The island’s residents eked out a living by fishing the tides in the New Meadows River and doing whatever work they could find on the mainland.

In 1912, the state ordered its 47 residents to leave the island and to take their homes with them, or they would be burned. Maine Gov. Frederick Plaisted oversaw the destruction of the year-round fishing hamlet.

“I think the best plan would be to burn down the shacks with all of their filth,” Plaisted told a newspaper reporter at the time. “Certainly the conditions there are not credible to our state. We ought not to have such things near our front door.”

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