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THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS

Updated: Nov 29, 2022

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson was on my “to read” list for a very long time. The length of the book (622 pages!) and the intensity of the subject matter made me hesitate to dive in. However, as soon as I started it, I realized I had nothing to worry about. The non-fiction chronicling of African Americans migrating from the southern US to different areas in the north and west following the abolition of slavery is so well researched and well written that, although it took me quite a while to finish (I’m a fairly slow reader), I was never ready for it to be over.



The book follows three different individuals and the true stories of how they left their homes in the south, their often complicated and dangerous journeys to Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles respectively, and their efforts to build new lives for themselves and their families.


Learning Something New Through Stories

This is a part of history I didn’t really know anything about. I hadn’t considered the reality that, of course, people wouldn't be thrilled to stay in the same location where their families were once enslaved – next door to the people who once enslaved them – especially because those power dynamics still existed. Jim Crow laws and continued threats on their lives if they “stepped out of line” kept them in a caste system that was its own type of slavery.

Wilkerson shares her surprise that this phenomenon has not been talked about as often as the world wars or economic depressions and recessions. It’s hard to argue with her. The Great Migration spanned over 50 years (starting around WWI and continuing through the ‘60s) and included around six million people.

“I began this work because of what I saw as incomplete perceptions, outside of scholarly circles, of what the Great Migration was and how and why it happened, particularly through the eyes of those who had experienced it. Because it was so unwieldy and lasted for so long, the movement did not appear to rise to the level of public consciousness that, by any measure, it seemed to deserve.” – Isabel Wilkerson, “Notes on Methodology,” The Warmth of Other Suns


Non-Fiction That Reads Like a Novel

Wilkerson wrote this book after many years of research, starting in the 1990s, including interviewing as many participants of the Great Migration as possible, especially the three primary subjects. But she wasn’t just concerned with the facts. She wanted to know and share what it was like to be them and make the choices they made.

“The primary subjects and many of the secondary informants were interviewed for dozens, if not hundreds, of hours, most of the interviews tape-recorded and transcribed. I returned to their counties of origin to interview the surviving people who knew them and to retrace their lives in the South. I then reenacted all or part of each subject’s migration route…” – Isabel Wilkerson, “Notes on Methodology,” The Warmth of Other Suns

Her deep dive into their stories, walking where they walked, hearing the stories from their mouths, and talking with those who knew them, pays dividends when it comes to bringing the reader into their world. We taste, smell, and feel their experiences.

Although there are short sections of the story that are written in a very formal, factual way, these are somewhat infrequent and are helpful in grounding the reader in the context the characters were operating within.


Character Development

The breadth and depth of the interviews show in the level of detail and the way Wilkerson makes the stories come alive. We get the chance to really get to know each of the characters. We get nervous about their well-being, we feel their pain and their joy, we begin to understand them. They weren’t perfect people, they were complex and flawed and good and bad.

By the end of the book, when we’re reaching the end of the three primary subjects’ lives, I grieved them as if I had a personal relationship with them. I had spent 600+ pages getting to know them, empathizing with them, wishing them the best, admiring their courage and perseverance, and I didn’t feel quite ready to say goodbye.


 

This book is a time investment, but it doesn’t feel like a burden once you start. Isabel Wilkerson’s research and writing turn the historical facts of the Great Migration into an informative, enjoyable, heartbreaking, real, and moving piece of writing that is worth going on your “to read” list!

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