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Review: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

5 Apr
Cover of The Warmth of Other Suns

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

I recently finished reading The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson on my Kindle. It is one of those rare works of nonfiction that reads like a gripping novel. The book mostly follows the stories of three protagonists who were part of the Great Migration, with ancillary stories and corroborating accounts woven in. These three people, Ida Mae Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Pershing Foster, never crossed paths, but their reasons for participating in the Great Migration and how it affected their lives are remarkably similar. Wilkerson does not put the heroes of her book on a pedestal, which is a temptation for many authors (fiction and non-fiction). But the frankness and honesty of Wilkerson’s reporting makes the reader really like Gladney, Starling, and Foster, despite their flaws and mistakes.

Before I read this book, the Great Migration and Jim Crow (the largest factor in its genesis), were abstractions to me. I knew of their general existence, and of the civil rights struggle to end segregation, but I’ve never taken any classes or read previous books that dealt with it in any great detail. I am so glad I read this book and filled in this gap in my knowledge. It is a little shocking, in retrospect, at how this history has been played down. I think that it would be very beneficial for this book to be assigned in high school American History and English classes. In English classes because the author does a fantastic job of personalizing a subject that could be very dry and academic, and American History classes because the Great Migration completely altered the American landscape. In 1910, 89% of all black people lived in the south, but by 1960, it was down to 60%. That’s significantly larger than the emigration caused by Ireland’s Great Famine. I learned about all sorts of things, such as the everyday brutality of Jim Crow – it wasn’t just segregation, but included racially motivated murders that were routinely unprosecuted, and that in northern cities, white people would riot when a black family tried to move into the neighborhood. I had heard of the 1967 riots, but never these other riots, such as the 1919 riots.

This is a fabulous, fascinating book and I highly recommend it. The subject matter is serious, but I didn’t feel morose while I was reading it, which is important when it comes to my limited leisure reading time. The stories in The Warmth of Other Suns are those of the triumph of the human spirit over awful conditions and forbidding odds. And I love those kinds of stories.