Book Review: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

Posted January 30, 2012 by Heather in Book Reviews / 9 Comments

Book Review: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel WilkersonThe Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
Published by Random House on 2010
Genres: History, Nonfiction
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 640
Source: my shelves

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From 1915 through the mid-1970s, approximately six million black citizens in the United States migrated from the Jim Crow south to points north and west in search of a better life. In The Warmth of Other Suns, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson tells the story of the Great Migration through the lives of three individuals: Ida Mae Gladney, who migrated from Mississippi to Chicago in 1937; George Starling, who fled to Harlem from Florida in 1945; and Robert Foster, who left Louisiana in 1953 to practice medicine in California. Each of these people left the south for different reasons, but they were all looking for the same things–freedom from the Jim Crow laws of the south, better opportunities for work, and better living conditions. By using the narrative nonfiction format, Wilkerson teaches us about this epic migration–and the history surrounding it–in a very personal way.

The Great Migration significantly changed the social, political, and physical structures of the United States. Black southerners introduced their cooking, culture, and faith to cities in the north and west. Although it was less overt in those cities, racism still existed and ghettos formed where white Americans and European immigrants refused to live or own businesses in the same communities in which black people from the south chose to settle. At the same time, the Great Migration gave us some of the greatest leaders, authors, musicians, and athletes in our country’s history, as well as numerous actors and actresses who would never have had the opportunities to follow their dreams had their parents or grandparents remained in the south. More importantly, this mass migration played a large role in the beginning stages of what would ultimately become the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

It took over ten years for Wilkerson to research and write The Warmth of Other Suns. Her research included interviewing over a thousand people and reading dozens of scholarly works on the subject. The three individuals chosen to tell their stories for the book were interviewed for hundreds of hours, and Wilkerson reenacted all or part of each of their migration routes to get a feel for what it must have been like. Wilkerson’s hard work and dedication to the subject resulted in a very comprehensive and informative, yet very personal piece of literature.

I became very attached to Ida Mae, George, and Robert; I felt like I had made the journey with them and like I was a first-hand witness to their new lives in the north and west. Though the details of their lives were very different–and very interesting, I must say–their universal story was one of courage and hard work, joy and sorrow, hope and resignation, frustration and relief–I laughed, I got angry, and I even shed a few tears. Wilkerson is a very good writer and The Warmth of Other Suns is an excellent book. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the Great Migration of the 20th century.


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