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Review: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

Review: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson post image

Title: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
Author: Isabel Wilkerson
Genre: Narrative Nonfiction
Year: 2010
Acquired: Bought

One Sentence Summary: Between 1915 and 1970 almost six million African American migrated from the South to escape Jim Crow laws, and this Great Migration changed the entire face of the United States.

One Sentence Review: Wilkerson’s book manages to be both epic and deeply personal at the same time, and is the kind of nonfiction that changed the way I think about the world.

Why I Read It: This book was shortlisted for the Indie Lit Awards in nonfiction, and I am a judge for that panel. Opinions expressed in this review are my own, and don’t reflect the thoughts of the panel or reflect our ratings of the book.

Long Review: At first glance, The Warmth of Other Suns seems like an intimidating book. It’s more than 600 pages long. There are three main characters, but the story Wilkerson is trying to tell seems overwhelming to even think about. How does one even go about telling the stories of more than six million people over a span of nearly 60 years?

But Wilkerson had me hooked within the first 15 pages of them book, in part because of paragraphs like this one at the end of her introduction:

The actions of the people in this book were both universal and distinctly American. Their migration was a response to an economic and social structure not of their making. They did what humans have done for centuries when life became untenable — what the pilgrims did under the tyranny of British rule, what the Scotch-Irish did in Oklahoma when the land turned to dust, what the Irish did when there was nothing to eat, what the European Jews did during the spread of Nazism, what the landless in Russia, Italy, China, and elsewhere did when something better across the ocean called to them. What binds these stories together was the back-against-the-wall, reluctant yet hopeful search for something better, any place but where they were. They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done.

They left.

I just love that, and I loved every moment of reading this book.

To give the story some emotional weight, Wilkerson chose three people to serve as examples and the ongoing narrative of the story: Ida Mae Gladney, a sharecropper who left Mississippi in 1937 to move to Chicago for a blue-collar life; George Starling, a quick-tempered youth who fled Florida for Harlem in 1945 and worked on the trains for most of his life; and Robert Foster, an educated doctor who left Louisiana in 1953 to practice medicine in California. The three of them have amazing personal stories, and Wilkerson does a commendable job of telling about them and using their experiences as starting points for her extensive research on the Great Migration.

Although brutality and overt racism evident in the South after the Civil War is relatively well-documented, Wilkerson made it hit home again for me. It’s always hard to imagine how we as a society could ever have been so cruel — even just a few terrible cases that stand out in a general sea of ignorance and fear. But, Wilkerson does make a good point about the societal impact of this system:

What few people seemed to realize or perhaps dared to admit was that the thick walls of the caste system kept everyone in prison. The rules that defined a group’s supremacy were so tightly wold as to put pressure on everyone trying to stay within the narrow confines of acceptability.

While that doesn’t excuse anything — not by a long shot — I appreciated that Wilkerson was able to acknowledge that a system of racism doesn’t just hurt a single group; everyone suffers from a culture of fear.

The other thing that I loved about this book was the way Wilkerson was able to show how effects of the Great Migration still impact us today. The design of cities, the traditions and trends of particular immigrant communities in each city, and even the idea of racial separation in cities can all be traced back to what happened when African Americans fled from the South and came North. I’m interested in urban sociology, and this book really is a good background for starting to think about those issues.

One criticism I do have of the book is occasional repetitiveness. Wilkerson is dealing with a lot of moving parts — personal stories, background characters, research, theory, and current discussion — and often repeats details about characters. I’m sure this was a style choice to try and keep all the parts distinct and clear, but I did start to notice it as the book progressed.

If one thing stood out to me from reading, it’s that Wilkerson really put her heart into this book. The dust jacket says she interviewed more than a thousand people, and that level of research shows in the detailed personal stories she shares and the number of academic sources she cites in making her different arguments. The Warmth of Other Suns really is a definitive book covering this historical phenomenon, and I highly recommend making the time to read it.

Other Reviews: Jayne’s Books |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Sara (wordyevidenceofthefact) January 25, 2011, 7:45 am

    Adding this one to my wish list as we speak. Thanks for the review!

    • Kim January 25, 2011, 5:31 pm

      Sara: I’m glad, enjoy!

  • umesh bawa January 25, 2011, 8:13 am

    A book which meets the lust for reading, the collection of some papers transcripted with historical notes…. This kind of books were quite close to my reading love… I got it now…

    • Kim January 25, 2011, 5:32 pm

      Umesh bawa: I hope you enjoy!

  • umesh bawa January 25, 2011, 8:17 am
  • Jeanne January 25, 2011, 8:55 am

    It’s so true that the effects still impact people; as a child, I remember being told that an African-American person in Arkansas wasn’t very smart “because all the smart ones moved up north.”

    • Kim January 25, 2011, 5:32 pm

      Jeanne: Wow! I can’t believe that story, except that it doesn’t seem impossible.

  • Vasilly January 25, 2011, 9:08 am

    Great review! The level of dedication that Wilkerson has for her subject is telling and helps bring the Great Migration to life. The author definitely made racism and how life was in the South hit home for readers over and over again. I haven’t noticed the repetition yet. Will keep an eye out for it.

    • Kim January 25, 2011, 5:33 pm

      Vasilly: Yes, agreed on all accounts. I may have just noticed it because I read so much nonfiction and pay attention to style a lot. I’m glad it’s not noticeable for other people 🙂

  • Joy Weese Moll January 25, 2011, 10:43 am

    I also really liked this book. I’ll be discussing it with my book group on Thursday night and plan to write my review of it on Friday. Or maybe I’ll just link to yours :-). Great review!

    • Kim January 25, 2011, 5:34 pm

      Joy Weese Moll: I’m sure your book group will have a great discussion of the book — enjoy!

  • BuriedInPrint January 25, 2011, 2:13 pm

    This sounds terrific: I’m definitely adding it to my reading list!

    • Kim January 25, 2011, 5:35 pm

      BuriedinPrint: It is! I hope you enjoy the book.

  • Thoughts of Joy January 25, 2011, 3:21 pm

    Ohhhh . . . this sounds great! I’m adding it to my TBR list right now. Thanks!

    • Kim January 25, 2011, 5:35 pm

      Thoughts of Joy: Wonderful!

  • Man of la Book January 25, 2011, 3:55 pm

    I’ve read several good reviews from this book, great job on your part.


    • Kim January 25, 2011, 5:36 pm

      Man of la Book: Thank you — it’s always hard to write reviews of books you really love. At least, I have that problem.

  • Nicole January 25, 2011, 4:53 pm

    I read a review of this one and immediately added it to my tbr. Besides some vague numbers in history books, I didn’t have much idea about the stories behind those numbers. I will have to bump this up in priority. It had been slipping, but you just recalled to me how much I want to get to this sooner rather than later.

    • Kim January 25, 2011, 5:37 pm

      Nicole: I really had no idea about the Great Migration — numbers or personal stories. I hope you get a chance to read it soon, it’s great.

  • diane January 25, 2011, 8:03 pm

    I have this one on my Kindle (unread so far). Your review was excellent Kim.

    • Kim January 27, 2011, 8:19 pm

      diane: Thank you! I hope you are able to read it soon. This would be a great Kindle book, since the hardcover is huge.

  • Kailana January 26, 2011, 12:11 pm

    This sounds interesting. I will have to see if the library has it!

    • Kim January 27, 2011, 8:20 pm

      Kailana: I think it will, it’s gotten a lot of publicity lately. It seems like a library sort of book.

  • Trisha January 26, 2011, 5:18 pm

    The Indie Lit Awards are going to kill my pocketbook when the TBR Dare is over in April. This sounds fantastic!

    • Kim January 27, 2011, 8:20 pm

      Trisha: I know, right? There are so many great books I’ve added to my list but not purchased yet.

  • Christy (A Good Stopping Point) January 30, 2011, 4:22 pm

    This sounds like an interesting book, though the size is admittedly intimidating. I moved to the D.C. metropolitan area five or so years ago and I often wonder how the city’s diversity has evolved throughout the years.

    • Kim January 31, 2011, 6:08 pm

      Christy: Yes, the size was a little scary for me, but it’s well worth the length. And I felt like it read relatively quickly, so I never felt too bogged down.

  • Cyril May 9, 2011, 6:27 am

    If children can read fantasy stories like Harry Potter with more pages than The Warmth of Other Suns, adults should be able to get through 543 (not 600) pages of this one.

    • Kim May 9, 2011, 6:45 am

      Cyril: Reading a Harry Potter book is not the same mental exercise as reading a nonfiction book like this one. The pace of Harry Potter much quicker than this, so the page length seems less intimidating. My hardcover edition of the book is 622 pages long, including the acknowledgements, footnotes, etc, which is what I was referring too (as it relates to the look of how big the book is). You’re right though — the story part is 543 pages.

  • Maria C September 5, 2012, 3:29 pm

    I loved this book. The funny thing is that although the length was “initimidatingly” long, I wanted it to go on and on and learn more about each character, their children, grandchildren. This non-fiction work changed the way I see our cities. I also loved the way the young Illinois politician, Barack Obama, is included in Ida Mae’s background and made me feel more optimistic about our country’s future.

    • Kim September 9, 2012, 1:53 pm

      I thought that was a cool piece too, just a little note but one that I really appreciated.