Reviewed By: Alice Price
Isabel Wilkerson’s narrative nonfiction, The Warmth of Other Suns (2010) follows the trajectories of three Black migrants from their homes in the post-Civil War rural South to New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Wilkerson is a news reporter informing the way her book takes a deep dive into the stories of ordinary folks—Ida Mae Brandon Gladney who relocated from Chickasaw County, Mississippi to Chicago in 1937; George Swanson Stirling who fled untenable labor practices in the orange groves of central Florida in 1945, taking the northeast corridor train lines to Harlem; Robert Joseph Pershing Foster who traveled west from Monroe Louisiana to pursue a successful career in medicine in Los Angeles in 1953.
The case studies are interwoven but distinct threads through which the author compellingly describes the conditions and circumstances that compelled individuals to embark on the difficult relocation, but also the challenges in the destinations as well as the communities that were forged. The very different experiences of Gladney, Stirling, and Foster in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles also demonstrate a diversity of economic, social, and generational outcomes.
Wilkerson’s style engages the reader, foregrounding the personalities and lives of these individuals, while contextualizing their individual journeys within their communities of origin and settlement and within the broader experience of the Great Migration at the beginning of the 20th century. The reasons for migrating and the experience of the individual case studies are dramatically different. The epilogue is a useful summary but also articulates Wilkerson’s systemic conclusions after probing these in-depth individual cases.
The 550 pages of the book should not deter you! Although long, it is appropriately paced. The author documents her sources with endnotes and bibliography but avoids jargon and the dry or off-putting style of many academic books. I read it a little bit each night and on vacations and really became immersed in the experiences and have returned to different parts of the narrative. A combination of readability and investigative research validates the award of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction and other accolades.