The second I read the New York Times review of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, I knew I wanted to read this book. I immediately ran to the library.*
I wasn’t disappointed. Rather I found it was even more gripping than I had imagined.
Isabel Wilkerson follows the stories of three people who made the journey from the South to Northern cities. Louisiana to Chicago. Georgia to California. Florida to New York.** Really epic.
Good research and reporting just oozes out of the book. Yet it never disrupts the story. It’s just astonishing to me that a book as big as this one is so incredibly well-crafted. Historical asides provide context for the Great Migration, dismantling myths about the people, time, and places. At the same time the three individuals’ stories are so well-told — I laughed and cried. The three people whose stories Wilkerson follows are not heroic saints. They are not perfect. But they are smart, ambitious, brave, flawed — and just very human. Very American. Just wanting a better life for themselves and their children.
White-guilt-related aside: I often recommend The Warmth of Other Suns to people who tell me they enjoyed The Help. Frankly, The Help was okay (well-paced, good prose), but it left a weird taste in my mouth. Why should I, a white lady, read a white lady’s story about a white lady who, through telling the stories of black ladies, becomes a hero to the grateful black ladies? Can the black ladies not tell their own stories? I felt like a lot of the book was spent trying to convince me that the white lady had to tell the black ladies’ stories for them, that there was no other way. And that just felt creepy and maybe exploitative to me, as a reader. Plus the dialect. Eugh.
So, if you wonder what the lives of real African Americans were like in the ’50s and ’60s, then this book is required reading.
**Reminding me of some of the longest routes in Ticket to Ride.