Review: The Warmth of Other Suns (and a note on Bomber County)

December 27, 2010 • 2:45 pm

Last September I highlighted a new book by journalist Isabel Wilkerson: The Warmth of Other Suns (subtitled The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration).  I finally managed to get it from the library, and, because it was recalled by another reader (due today!), I polished off the 550-page book in a marathon reading stint over Christmas. I’m happy to report that, as all the reviews indicated, the book is superb, well worth reading for anyone interested in America’s racial divide, the civil rights movement, or simply the sociological consequences (which were huge) of the Great Migration.  That term refers to the large-scale movement of blacks from America’s south to the north and west, starting around World War I and ending only when the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.

It’s a long book, but not a ponderous one.  Wilkerson centers her story on three “migrants”: Ida Mae Gladney, a sharecropper who moved from Mississippi to Chicago in 1937, Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, a surgeon who left Louisiana for a new life in California in 1953, and George Swanson Sterling, a Florida fruit-picker who, after angering whites by trying organize his fellow pickers, fled from certain lynching to New York’s Harlem in 1945.  You get to know these people in great detail: the infinite race-based humiliations and degradations that made them leave the South, their attempts (not wholly successful) to build new lives in supposedly discrimination-free parts of America, and their continuing and conflicted relationship with their southern birthplace.

The story is both heartening and sad: Wilkerson followed her subjects, all of whom she interviewed for many hours, from when she met them in the mid-1990s until they died.  All three had terrific memories (I suppose that’s one reason Wilkerson chose them from all her subjects), so their biographies are full of engrossing detail.  While they all achieved “success” of a sort in the North and West, it was mixed with more than a touch of tragedy (I won’t say more about that).  She blends the stories of these three people, told in short, several-page snippets, with larger analyses of the demographics and sociology of the Great Migration.  Her thesis is that this migration was the American equivalent of the migration of hopeful immigrants from Europe to America that took place beginning about the same time:  both groups fled poverty and often discrimination for a new life and better jobs. The difference, of course, is that American blacks were already citizens; but, despite that, they couldn’t escape their origins for a simple reason: their pigmentation.  While European immigrants could assimilate by marrying locals or changing their names, southern blacks could never pretend to be WASPs.

I give this book two enthusiastic thumbs up:  you’ll not only learn a lot about this underappreciated part of recent America history (I see its remnants about me every day in Chicago, since I live on the South Side, perhaps the most famous destination of the Migration), but also become deeply involved in the lives of Ida Mae, George, and Robert.  The ending is poignant and bittersweet, and will make you both proud of the migrants and sad about their fate.  The writing is quite good (Wilkerson won a Pulitzer Prize for journalism—the first black woman to do so—for her work at The New York Times), and the scholarship, though thorough, is worn lightly. (The book was 15 years in the making and Wilkerson interviewed over 1200 people.)  If there’s one flaw—and it’s a small one—the writing is occasionally awkward and more than occasionally repetitious, with the same facts repeated in different places.  But that’s a trifle that should by no means put you off.

If you’re looking for a fat but fascinating book to start 2011, and you like history, sociology, and just plain good biography, this is the one for you.  The hardback is only $16.95 at Amazon.

I’ve also finished Bomber County by Daniel Swift, one of Barnes and Noble’s picks for best nonfiction of 2010.  This was okay, but did not in my estimation merit the rapturous reviews it garnered from Anthony Grayling and others.  It was an ambitious and idiosyncratic undertaking: an attempt to unravel the story of Swift’s grandfather, an RAF bomber pilot killed in 1943; to recount the horrific life of those pilots, whose wartime longevity was measured in months; and to analyze the question of why there was so little war poetry in WWII compared to WWI.  The book turned out to be a dog’s breakfast, with the back-and-forth between the topics making it hard to pay sustained attention.  Swift’s insightful analysis of literature during the war, including works by Dylan Thomas, T. S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, was the best part, but in the end the center did not hold, and some of Swift’s lyricism seemed forced.

15 thoughts on “Review: The Warmth of Other Suns (and a note on Bomber County)

  1. Not fiction, but I’m staring down the barrel of Mark Twain’s Autobiography (Vol 1), which I got for xmas. Heading north to relax later this week, where I expect to put a dent in it.

  2. Thanks for the review of Wilkerson’s book. As the child of parents and a large family of aunts, uncles and cousins who participated in the Great Migration I’ve been planning to read it and your review has reminded me that I haven’t yet done so. Interestingly I, as well as some of those very same aunts, uncles, etc. along with their children (my peers) are now part of the reverse migration back to the South.

    1. Really? Why are you all moving back south? I assume it’s not just the weather. I’m Australian so I know very little about all this stuff and I tend to find US race relations rather baffling.

      1. That is a question with a multi-faceted answer, too much so to go into here. Perhaps the most simplistic: the “New South” is, for the most part, no longer the harsh place it once was for African Americans. On the other hand the urban north can be tough on people as they age and not the safest place for children — especially as they reach their teens. In that respect, as JJE said in one of the comments below, African Americans are moving “back south” for the same basic lifestyle reasons that many other Americans are moving here. On other hand, it’s probably a bit more complicated for us. When we arrived in North Carolina 8 years ago, our new family doctor– a young white southerner — told me that he’d read medical statistics that said my African American sons stood a greater chance of simply staying ALIVE and being safer and mentally healthier in the south and outside of the urban north and its violence. That’s certainly a reversed trend. I don’t know the source of his statistics but I can say anecdotally that we have found it to be true for our family. My children have lived safe, calm, happy lives. My mother, who moved from South Carolina to New York 55 years ago and is now in Virginia lives a peaceful, comfortable life as she ages, which is why she moved there. But this all said, my children, one who is about to graduate from a southern university and the other currently attending college in Boston BOTH plan to move back to the northeast as they begin their careers….a reverse of the reversal! We have come to a place where we are living where we want to live for many of the same reasons that other Americans are making those choices.

  3. I bought it a while ago, after reading about it here. It’s good to hear you saying it lives up to the reviews (it made the NY Times top-something list, and was listed at various other sites too, I think). I haven’t got around to reading it yet (there’s a really high pile of books to read on my shelf), but I am hoping to start over my upcoming end-of-year holidays. After I finish “Through the Language Glass” by Guy Deutscher, which is really good so far by the way.

  4. Obviously I can speak for Jacqui (for so many reasons — not the least of which is because I’m white) but there are some general reasons to move back to the South (I’m a Southerner). For example, if some family remain there, it could be desirable. Another possibility is that, with the exception of Florida and I think maybe NoVa (not 100% sure) the South weathered the financial/housing crises much better than most of the rest of the nation. (And Florida is Florida, not really the South anyway.) Also, the cost of living is generally lower, and as you point out, the weather is preferable for many people (though if you love real seasons, don’t go to the Gulf Coast).

    I’m sure there are many other reasons.

    1. That was supposed to be threaded to “Marella Posted December 27, 2010 at 4:14 pm”. Not sure why it didn’t work. Oh well.

  5. Nice review. I am looking forward to reading it (number 2 in the queue for Brisbane city council library, so sometime next month perhaps).

    In the meantime, I need to finish “Enlightenment and reform in Eighteenth-century Europe” which is a historical analysis of the Enlightenment and Joseph II, and re-read “God is not Great” before I have to return them in two days time. Oh, and “Historians’ History of the World Vol XIII – Netherlands (published in 1908). The things I read for fun 😉

  6. I have started Thomas Seeley’s ‘Honeybee Democracy’, which so far is excellent, but since the book is large and unsuited to reading on trains, particularly Tokyo trains, I was side-tracked – to keep the railway metaphor going – by William Blacker’s extraordinary ‘Along the Enchanted Way’, an account of living, in the 1990s, among Romanian peasants and Transylvanian Saxons who had preserved a virtually mediaeval way of life, and also among the Romanian gypsies, one of whom, the astoundingly beautiful Marishka, became Blacker’s lover and the mother of his son (Blacker himself came to regarded as a son by a childless Romanian couple). It is a remarkable book for many reasons, but also because it shows how complex a place Europe is – and I know this is not really the place to mention it, but I was disturbed by commenters on another thread talking about Muslims out-breeding those whom I suppose they would regard as echt Europeans; it was again very recently that Muslim Europeans, resident in Europe for centuries, were being massacred in Bosnia while the Western world – led in this case by the British and the French – largely stood by and did nothing (though it seems that Iran sent some revolutionary guards to help out)

  7. I don’t know if it is good practice on blogs to dig up older entries – if it isn’t, my apologies. But I finished “The Warmth of Other Suns” last night, and since I learned about it here, I thought I’d drop a line to say that I absolutely loved it.

    I didn’t know much about that part of American history, so there was much to learn. But mostly, it was a really engrossing read. I think what Wilkerson did is near perfect: telling a grander tale, by focusing on three individuals who migrated in different decades to different parts. That allows her to tie everything together in a larger story, without losing sight of the personal details. And it’s those details that really made the book.

    I thought it striking that there are no photos in the book, not even of the three main subjects. But you get to know them so well, that you don’t need pictures. If that makes sense.

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