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Susan Pedersen wins Cundill Prize in Historical Literature

The Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, lieutenant governor of Ontario, Susan Pedersen, winner of the 2015 Cundill Prize in Historical Literature at McGill University for The Guardians and McGill chancellor Michael A. Meighen.

Tom Sandler

Susan Pedersen is the winner of this year's Cundill Prize in Historical Literature, one of the world's most lucrative non-fiction prizes, it was announced Monday.

Her book The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire, a re-examination of the international organization founded in the aftermath of the First World War, took home the $75,000 (U.S.) prize.

"This pot of gold just fell on my head," Pedersen said. "Obviously I'm completely delighted. Historians write history because they're compelled to, because they love it and are kind of incapable of doing anything else. But, in the end, you have to write for the public, and it's amazing when something that you do resonates – somehow."

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The other finalists, who each received $10,000 (U.S.), were Sven Beckert for Empire of Cotton: A Global History and Bettina Stangneth for Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer.

"All the books that were finalists were huge projects," Pedersen said. "We all worked on our books for about 10 years."

This year's jury was comprised of former Cundill Prize finalist Maya Jasanoff, a professor at Harvard; author Anna Porter; David Frum, a senior editor at The Atlantic; former British high commissioner to Canada Anthony Cary; and University of Ottawa professor Chad Gaffield.

The Cundill Prize, which celebrates an author "who has published a book determined to have had (or likely to have) a profound literary, social and academic impact in the area of history," was established in 2008 by F. Peter Cundill and is administered by his alma mater, McGill University – where, coincidentally, Pedersen's uncle served as dean of the school of music for many years.

Pedersen, who was born in Japan to Canadian missionaries, is a dual citizen and is currently the modern British historian at Columbia University, where she has taught since 2003. She is in the early stages of a new book on the history of the women's suffrage movement, but she said she already knows how her prize winnings will be spent.

"I have one child in college, so you can imagine there are demands on it. Let's just say my kids have already spent it."

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