It was a long, strange trip from the jungles of South America to the opulent ballroom of Toronto’s King Edward Hotel. But it came to a more-than-satisfying climax Monday afternoon for Andrew Westoll, author of The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: A Canadian Story of Resilience and Recovery, when he accepted the $25,000 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction.
“This book felt like the book I was supposed to write,” Westoll said in the emotional aftermath of the announcement. “I used to live in the Upper Amazon basin studying monkeys, so this made perfect sense to me.”
Few observers had tipped Westoll’s book to win the Taylor prize this year, with most favouring either Charlotte Gill’s acclaimed Eating Dirt or Into The Silence, a large and authoritative volume on the early climbs of Mount Everest by veteran author and explorer Wade Davis.
But no one was more surprised by the win than Toronto’s Westoll, previously the author of The Riverbones, a memoir of life in the jungle. “This is the funniest thing about prizes,” he said, recalling his first, stumbling attempt to craft the award-winning story of a Canadian chimpanzee sanctuary. “You don’t get to see the writer when he’s starting.”
It wasn’t until he hit upon the phrase, “This is a story about a family,” that the project came together, according to the author.
The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary documents Westoll’s stay at a sanctuary where chimpanzees that had grown up in laboratories and taken part in horrific experiments live out their lives.
“The whole reason I wrote this book was to bring more awareness,” Westoll said, welcoming the publicity bonanza that comes with the award. “No one knew there was a chimpanzee family living on the south shore of Montreal. Being able to go around the country and talk about this is just going to help get that word out more.”
Winning the prize is exciting, he added, “but we don’t write these books for prizes, we write them for readers.”
The other finalists for this year’s Taylor prize were Madeline Sonik of Victoria, nominated for Afflictions & Departures, a collection of essays, and Vancouver’s JJ Lee for The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son and a Suit. Each finalist received $2,000.
The choice of the winner came in the final hours before Monday's announcement, with jurors Stevie Cameron, Susan Renouf and Allan Brandt conferring by conference call before announcing their decision at the last minute.
The prize jury was “humbled” by the quality of work submitted, according to Renouf. “We really were astonished at the maturity and brilliance of Canadian non-fiction writing,” she said.
The Taylor Prize was founded 14 years ago as a deathbed request by author and former Globe journalist Charles Taylor and has been continued annually since then by his widow Noreen.
Previous winners include Charles Foran, honoured last year for Mordecai: The Life & Times; The Globe's Ian Brown, author of The Boy in the Moon; and John A. Macdonald biographer Richard Gwyn.
The annual award presentation and lunch gained lustre this year from the presence of Governor-General David Johnson, official sponsor of a competing literary award program. Noreen Taylor introduced Johnson by his familial nickname, Grandpa Book.