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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Vestal’s novel ‘Daredevils’ claims top prize at Washington State Book Awards

Spokane author Shawn Vestal has won the Washington State Book Award for his debut novel, “Daredevils.” (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane writer Shawn Vestal, a columnist for The Spokesman-Review, has won the Washington State Book Award for fiction for his debut novel, “Daredevils.”

The prize, awarded by the Washington Center for the Book, honors a book’s “literary merit, lasting importance and overall quality,” according to a news release. It was presented Saturday night in a ceremony at the Seattle Public Library’s central branch.

Also nominated in the fiction category were “The Solace of Monsters” by Laurie Blauner; “Stories of Your Life and Others” by Ted Chiang; “Lovecraft Country” by Matt Ruff; and “Barkskins” by Annie Proulx, a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner for her 1993 novel, “The Shipping News.”

This marks the third straight year a Spokane writer has claimed Washington’s top fiction prize. Vestal follows Sharma Shields’ “The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac” and Bruce Holbert’s “The Hour of Lead.”

“Daredevils,” set in the 1970s, tells the story of a teenage girl, Loretta, raised in a fundamentalist Mormon community in Arizona. Already chaffing at the strictures that govern her life, Loretta takes up with a Gentile boy. Her parents catch her sneaking back into the house one night and as punishment, marry her off as a sister wife to a local merchant.

Meanwhile, in southern Idaho, a teenage boy, Jason, is questioning his own mainstream Mormon faith. Soon, his and Loretta’s paths cross. Loretta sees Jason as a way out, and Jason sees Loretta as someone who needs saving. Together, along with Jason’s friend Boyd, they take off for Nevada and into the unknown.

It sounds like the set up for a young adult romance, where our protagonists run off into the sunset together, but “Daredevils” refuses the easy cliche. Weaving his way through the story is Evel Kneivel, whose exploits entrance Jason and who helps propel the characters down their path, for good and bad.

At its core, “Daredevils” is Loretta’s story, and it’s a rebellious story. As Vestal said in an interview for the book’s release, Loretta, “There’s no safe place for her, really. There’s no place where someone says, ‘You come here, and I’m going to value you for who you are and you can do what you want to do.’ Everybody wants to put her into their life.”

Linda Johns, librarian and reader services coordinator for the Seattle Public Library, sat in on some of the judges’ discussions and said they were unanimously impressed with Vestal’s writing, and how he sensitively handled the subject of fundamentalist Mormonism.

She shared some of the judges’ comments.

“Like Evel Knievel’s Snake River canyon jump (which makes a cameo inDaredevils’), Vestal’s young protagonist, Loretta, acts boldly on her own behalf, never losing her intention to become the hero of her own story,” one judge wrote. Another found “Daredevils” to be a beautifully written “literary novel that tackles timely issues with a female protagonist that doesn’t need a man to rescue her. It has a unique perspective and is utterly convincing.”

“Daredevils” is Vestal’s second book. His debut story collection, 2013’s “Godforsaken Idaho,” won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for debut works of fiction. The Idaho native has been a writer and editor at The Spokesman-Review since 1999.

Another writer with deep Spokane ties, Sherman Alexie, also brought home a top prize Saturday – best picture book for “Thunder Boy Jr.,” illustrated by Yuyi Morales. Alexie, who lives in Seattle, is a member of the Spokane Tribe and was raised in Wellpinit. He previously won the Washington State Book Award in 2008 and 1994.

Other winners include:

Poetry, “My, My, My, My, My” by Tara Hardy, of Seattle;

Biography/memoir, “An Earlier Life” by Brenda Miller, of Bellingham;

History/general nonfiction, “Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens” by Steve Olson, of Seattle;

Young readers (ages 6 to 8), “Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea” by Ben Clanton of Tacoma;

Middle readers (ages 9 to 12), “Some Kind of Courage” by Dan Gemeinhart, of Cashmere;

Young adults (ages 13 to 18), “Useless Bay” by M.J. Beaufrand, of Seattle.

This is the 51st year of the Washington State Book Awards, Formerly the Governor’s Writers Awards. The Washington Center for the Book is a joint project of the Seattle Public Library and the Washington State Library. Winners receive a $500 stipend.