The winner of the 2019 Harper Lee Prize for legal fiction is Sharon Bala’s The Boat People. Bala is an author living in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. She is the ninth author to win the prize authorized by the late Harper Lee for a book-length work of fiction that best illuminates the power of lawyers to effect change in society.
The prize was first awarded nine years ago to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Lee’s world-famous novel To Kill a Mockingbird. It is a joint award of the University of Alabama School of Law and the American Bar Association’s ABA Journal. This year’s winner was chosen by a distinguished panel of writers and scholars, including Robert Barnes, U.S. Supreme Court correspondent at the Washington Post; Steven Hobbs, Tom Bevill Chairholder of Law, UA’s School of Law; Claire Hamner Matturro, author and alumna, UA’s School of Law; Utz McKnight, chair of the department of gender and race studies and professor of political science, UA; and Gin Phillips, author, “Fierce Kingdom.”
The selection committee praised The Boat People for answering Lee’s charge to recognize legal fiction that shows lawyers making positive changes in society. The Boat People follows the story of a group of Sri Lankan refugees who escape a bloody civil war only to arrive on Vancouver Island’s shores to face the threat of deportation and accusations of terrorism. “The Boat People touched me, haunted me, and educated me—in much the same way To Kill a Mockingbird did when I first read it as an impressionable child,” said Claire Hamner Matturro, University of Alabama School of Law graduate and author. “It’s the kind of book I wish the whole world could read with an open mind and an open heart.”
“The Boat People is timely and powerful. Even those who think they are versed in the various vantage points involved in the complex area of immigration will gain a deeper appreciation of the nuances by reading Sharon Bala’s first novel,” said Molly McDonough, editor and publisher of the ABA Journal. “The book explores the perspectives of desperate refugees; the attorneys who–voluntarily or not–are trying to help them; and the adjudicators who are asked to make potentially life-or-death decisions with little to no evidence.”
Bala responded: “It’s an absolute honor to learn that The Boat People has won the 2019 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction. Writing this novel was a meditation on empathy. My greatest hope is that it has the same effect on readers.”
The 2019 prize was awarded on August 29 at the Library of Congress in conjunction with the National Book Festival.