Novelist is first woman to win the Whitbread: Former ballet dancer collects pounds 23,000 prize for book about white slavery in America's Deep South

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A WOMAN won the pounds 23,000 Whitbread Book of the Year Prize last night for the first time since its inception in 1985. Joan Brady, 53, took the award for her third novel, Theory of War, about some of the white children sold into slavery in post-civil war America. Her own grandfather was a white slave. She beat the bookmakers' favourite, Andrew Motion's biography of Philip Larkin.

Mrs Brady, a widow, is a former ballet dancer. She was born in America but has lived in Devon for 20 years. She gave up dancing at the age of 22 to study philosophy, and is now studying physics at the Open University. One of the judges, David Mellor MP, said: 'Theory of War is a fascinating book, part family history, part vivid act of re-creation. How many of us know that there were white as well as black slaves in the South? Once you have read Joan Brady's searing account of one such white slave, her grandfather, you'll never forget it.'

The Whitbread uniquely pits a novel, first novel, poetry anthology, biography and children's book against each other. The winners in each category, which competed for last night's overall award, were: Andrew Motion's biography of Philip Larkin (biography); Flour Babies, by Anne Fine (children's novel); Saving Agnes, by Rachel Cusk (first novel); Theory of War, by Joan Brady (novel); Mean Time, by Carol Ann Duffy (poetry).

The judges included the MPs William Waldegrave and David Mellor; the writers Ruth Rendell and Gillian Cross; Adrian Noble, artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre; Peter Preston, editor of the Guardian, and Professor Philip Hobsbawm of the University of Glasgow.

Theory of War is published by Andre Deutsch; pounds 14.00.

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