Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns seemed to be near the top of everyone’s best books of the year list in 2011. It took me a while to squeeze it into my reading schedule, but now I can see why it was so loved. This is one of the best books I’ve read in some time.
Wilkerson tells the epic tale of African-American migration from the impossible conditions of the South into the difficult, but more hopeful landscapes of the North and West between WWI and 1970. While she covers the bigger story with aplomb, the true heart of this book is in its storytelling. Wilkerson listened to hundreds of personal narratives about the migration and included dozens of those stories in Other Suns, but three extensive life stories form the center of her narrative.
Ida Mae Gladney was a sharecropper’s wife who traveled from Mississippi to Chicago with her husband in 1937. George Starling Jr. narrowly escaped lynching in Florida orange groves by migrating to New York in 1945, then became a porter on trains that crossed from North to South. Robert Pershing Foster was a doctor who went from Louisiana to Los Angeles in 1953, searching for a chance to perform operations and other basic medical practices in real hospitals. A flamboyant man, the only thing he loved more than gambling was medicine, and his client list would ultimately include the likes of Ray Charles.
It’s clear that Wilkerson forged deep relationships with these three central figures, and she does a marvelous job of finding all the pathos in their stories, following them until just after the turn of the century. None of them lived to see the book’s publication, but they’ll live on forever in its pages. While all three were exceptional in their way, their experiences weren’t atypical, and through them, Wilkerson is able to capture the story of migration in three different decades, for three common reasons (poverty, threat of violence, search for opportunity) following three typical paths (in most cases, migrants followed common trails: the southern east coast states to the Northeast; from Alabama and Mississippi north to St. Louis, Chicago, and Milwaukee; and from Louisiana and Texas to California.)
The book covers the horrors of the South (lynching, deeply unfair economic conditions, and great limits on opportunity) and the challenges of the North (less blatant, but often equally strong segregation, black-hostile neighborhoods, drugs, crime, and disconnection from home and family). She tells many moving stories, including those of her own family, but never verges into sentimentality. She lets these stories have their own power without maudlin embellishments.
For a large book The Warmth of Other Suns reads quickly, and never becomes redundant. The blend of big picture history and inspirational life stories give it broad appeal to a wide scope of readers and should make this prime book group material.