Random House, 2010

Gripping. Engaging. Rich characterization. Sensory detail.

These aren’t words commonly associated with reading non-fiction.

Every one of them is an accurate description of Isabel Wilkerson’s chronicle of “the biggest underreported story of the twentieth century”.

It’s “The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”, as the subtitle states, and Isabel Wilkerson tells the story through the experiences of three individuals.

Ida Mae Brandon Gladney. George Swanson Starling. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster.

In the beginning, these names are just words on a page. And a lot of words, too: immediately the reader wonders how these long-named people will take on a presence in the sprawling narrative.

Isobel Wilkerson won a Pulitzer for her journalism, so readers expect that she won’t have any trouble getting the facts straight.

After all, this is a work about history, so the details — those names and dates, charts and statistics — matter. And that does matter. “Official records corroborated those details that were indeed verifiable.”

But there is something truly remarkable that sets this work of history apart from the other works sitting alongside it on the shelf, something beyond the verifiable details.

And that “is the larger emotional truths, the patient retelling of people’s interior lives and motivations, that are the singular gift of the accounts in this book”.

The book’s opening pages consist of very brief glimpses into Ida Mae’s and George’s and Pershing’s experience, which are followed by a broader sweep of the historical matters that the book considers, and this alternating pattern repeats, with the emphasis on personal experience and memory.

“With the passing of the earliest and succeeding generations of migrants, it is these stories that have become the least replaceable sources of any understanding of this great movement of people out of the South to the American North and West.”

But what sets Isabel Wilkerson’s work apart? What makes The Warmth of Suns such a powerful work? How does she pull the reader into her scholarly research so effortlessly?

Against a Kadir Nelson painting in Heart and Soul

The Specific and the Sweeping

In the first 75 pages, the reader can choose to take this journey with a 15-year-old girl who’s being courted by two handsome and determined young men in Mississippi, with a 20-year-old young man who is trying to trick his father into being allowed to continue his education, or with the ambitious son of two schooteachers.

Very specific experiences drawn from their memories (readers also have glimpses of these three in the late 1990s) pull the reader into individual lives and memories.

Turkeys and uprisings, schoolbooks and lynchings, sunrises and statutes; the details flesh out the experience in a way that memorizing dates and events cannot. Even the use of language alters as the book progresses; individuals called “colored” in the early chapters are, later, called ‘black’. The details matter, and the personal is political.

At once, the migration is an event of historical significance, which resides in the pages of history books, and it is just what happened in people’s lives, something residing in photographs and letters and memories of countless  families.

The Shame and the Triumph

Throughout The Warmth of Other Suns, readers come to feel as though they know the individuals whose experience is placed at the heart of this work. It is as vivid and striking an experience as reading a novel, and Isabel Wilkerson employs techniques more commonly associated with writing fiction.

She is particularly adept at sketching scenes and choosing emotive moments to represent an individual’s changing internal landscape. Scenes from throughout their lives are described with rich sensory detail, so that one not only understands what happens, but can almost feel it.

Sometimes these are moments which revolve around something to celebrate and, of course, these are moving and inspiring. But what adds demonstrably to the power of her work is her inclusion of moments in which her key subjects felt shamed and moved to despair.

These are ordinary people; they took risks that didn’t always “pay off”, made decisions that they later realized were flawed, flat-out made mistakes, and, sometimes, they triumphed. Her decision to represent these people as multi-faceted individuals adds power to the work as a whole; it truly brings the history off the page.

One more of Kadir Nelson’s gorgeous paintings

And What’s Between

Although the focus remains steadily on her key subjects — and this is handled deftly, with the reader returned regularly to these touchpoints like a motif in a symphony — just a few sentences can remind the reader of the expanse of the work.

It happens like this. There is a scene. There is a statement. There is another statement. There is room to contemplate.

There is a small moment of confusion and anger when a mother burns a child’s shoes because a local healer has advised that the boy’s convulsions will stop if what he’s wearing is burned while he is seizing, and the father learns of this and must reconcile this decision with the fact that he has had to go without shoes himself while working sun-up to sun-down.

There is a brief commentary about the state of the world in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash; it is observed that the sharecroppers’ families cannot afford shoes, and it is observed that the planters’ families are not riding in the latest Model T’s.

There are sharecroppers, there are planters, there are merchants, there are banks, there are northern investment companies: Wilkerson never strays from the fact that she is sketching the experiences of individuals, but they are individual people inhabiting a web woven across an expansive and complex landscape.

Image Links to Challenge Page

This is a work that defies encapsulation, the body of the text over 500 pages and the supporting materials another 75 pages. It’s tempting to extract longer portions, to try to mimic the breadth of experience represented, either by sharing more details of individuals’ experience or by quoting passages of commentary, but ultimately this work must be experienced as a whole as much as for its parts.

If history can be realer than real? That’s what The Warmth of Other Suns accomplishes.

What do you think?