Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction

Winning tale shows rule of law, alone, won’t ensure justice

The 2019 Harper Lee Prize was awarded to Canadian author Sharon Bala for her book, “The Boat People”, at a ceremony last month that helped kick off the annual Library of Congress National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. 

University of Alabama Law School Dean Mark E. Brandon awards author Sharon Bala the 2019 Harper Lee Prize for her novel “The Boat People.”

University of Alabama Law School Dean Mark E. Brandon awards author Sharon Bala the 2019 Harper Lee Prize for her novel “The Boat People.”

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In accepting the award, Bala called her first novel  “a love letter to my country (Canada).”

The annual prize, which was authorized by the late writer Harper Lee and is awarded jointly by The University of Alabama School of Law and the ABA Journal, goes to a work of fiction that shows the role of lawyers in society and their power to effect change, as exemplified by Lee’s classic 1960 novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

 In awarding the 2019 prize, University of Alabama Law School Dean Mark E. Brandon, said Bala’s book, “teaches us about the law, but also teaches us about the human heart.” He added that as in “To Kill a Mockingbird, Bala’s book makes the point that “the mere presence of lawyers does not guarantee that society will be well and good.” 

“The Boat People” is a story of a father and his young son who flee Sri Lanka’s civil wars for Vancouver, Canada, only to find themselves held in a detention processing center and questioned as potential terrorists.

 “Now more than ever it is important we are shown the perspective of people caught up in the asylum system,” said Molly McDonough, editor & publisher of the ABA Journal.

In accepting the award, Bala, who was born in Dubai but raised in Ontario, said one of her goals in writing “The Boat People” was to invite readers “to explore the lives of those who leave their native land.”

Bala said that while researching the book she was surprised to learn how the treatment of asylum-seekers was more heavily influenced by the political mood of the country in which they landed than by the situation in the land they left.

Twenty-five works of fictions were nominated for the 2019 Harper Lee Prize.  In addition to “The Boat People”, the other finalists included “Class Action” by Steven B. Frank, and “The Widows of Malabar Hill”, by Sujata Massey.

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