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The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (thoughts)

November 13, 2013

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

Oh how I wanted to love Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. On paper, it was perfect: a history book that focuses on the margins (my favourite kind), a respected POC author (as opposed to a white academic writing about a different ethnic group from an inherently privileged position, which is all too common), and it was available as an ebook so I wouldn’t have to aggravate my arthritis by handling a massive physical copy. I was a bit concerned straight off the bat, when the book opens with what sounds like the beginning of a novel:

The night clouds were closing in on the salt licks east of the oxbow lakes along the folds in the earth beyond the Yalobusha River. The cotton was at last cleared from the field. Ida Mae tried now to get the children ready and to gather the clothes and quilts and somehow keep her mind off the churning within her.

In fact, when I first got this book from the library, I abandoned it within a few pages due to it sounding too much like fiction. But this time I flipped to the “notes on methodology” section in the back and discovered Wilkerson combined more traditional scholarly research with interviews. So I decided to keep on open mind, especially since after the sketchy (to me) opening the book quickly moves on to a more analytical overview of the Great Migration. I assumed that the story bits would be sprinkled throughout a book made up of primarily more trustworthy analysis. I assumed wrongly.

Now, I want to say that I’ve read nonfiction excellent books based on nontraditional sources, including oral ones (to name one of many, Tera Hunter’s To ‘Joy My Freedom). And I’m well aware that any marginalised history is going to have a more challenging go of finding traditional academic sources due to its very nature. What drove me insane about The Warmth of Other Suns is that rather than present the thousands of interviews she conducted (they’re cited in the back), with an analysis of patterns, exceptions, etc., she instead spends the vast majority of the book recounting the stories of just three people. Now, there’s a reason statistics become more trustworthy as the sample pool grows larger: the more people involved, the safer it is to interpret similarities as patterns or find common themes. By focusing on three people, Wilkerson gives up that authenticity, and I spent much of my reading experience not only deeply skeptical of the stories being presented (at the very least, discounting the giant temptation anyone would face to change their story to present themselves in a better light, especially knowing it would be part of a published book, it’s been neurologically shown that memories change over time and are easily suggestable) but frustrated Wilkerson for her apparent willingness to accept everything told to her at face value. To give you one tiny example: at one point, she’s describing the “love” and “commitment to marriage” and “sense of duty” one of the male subjects has that prevents him from divorcing his wife a mere paragraph or two after mentioning his extramarital affair that resulted in another child. Seriously?! I kept wanting to see a conglomerate of stories interwoven with history and analysis, rather than essentially three-memoirs-in-one, woven together with a bit of background. I should have abandoned this, but I kept telling myself the next chapter would get to the meat of Wilkerson’s arguments and discoveries. Somehow that chapter never came.

What I find most tragic about this is that the bits of analysis are wonderfully written, and I truly believe The Warmth of Other Suns had the potential to be such a wonderful book. Wilkerson is clearly intelligent and passionate and an excellent, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist. But it felt like in her hyper-focus on two men and one woman, she’d missed the forest for the trees. Nevertheless I do hope its reception inspires others to write more rigorous accounts of what is a key aspect of American history, one that still impacts modern culture. I suppose this is an excellent example of why it’s better to go into a book with no expectations, the better to ward off readerly disappointment when the author clearly has a different aim from the one you’d like to see!

7 Comments leave one →
  1. dastevensish permalink
    November 13, 2013 11:43 am

    I can definitely see why you were disappointed. I agree–it is so much better going into a book with no expectations, but that’s not always possible. I know you’re not big on memoirs to start with, but I often enjoy them (taking them as “this person’s truth” as opposed to “the truth” if that makes sense). But the subtitle of this book “The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” certainly leads one to believe that it’s a different sort of book than three memoirs with some historical background connecting them. As always, loved reading your thoughts!

  2. November 13, 2013 5:38 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree with your observations. This book promised but did not deliver what it advertised. I believe the publisher is at fault. I have been told many, many times by literary agents that what the book-purchasing public wants are stories about people, and if a writer strays beyond that it is a [hopeless] academic title, from a sales point of view. Marketing departments want to advertise “historically accurate stories.” Although I don’t have the titles I’m thinking of at my fingertips, I know there are stellar, very readable academic titles on this subject.

    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

    • November 14, 2013 1:27 am

      I’m glad you agree; I actually toned down my post because I originally sounded much more frustrated and disappointed! I wish I hadn’t spent 500 pages on it, but that’s good to know re: other books. I’d be grateful if you could point me in a direction, but if not at least I can start to search for them knowing they exist!

  3. November 14, 2013 10:04 am

    It sounds like the very reasons that you were frustrated with the book were the reasons that I enjoyed it so much. I loved the fact that she brought out these specific stories and allowed them to settle into the readers’ consciousness. Even though their experiences felt a world apart from mine, I was really emotionally engaged in their narratives, and felt that revisiting them across the years had a real impact on my understanding, in a way that I have not felt was true with some other accounts with a more academic approach (not to say that there is not value in those works, for of course they’re essential as well) and more over-arching commentary.

    Though I do wish that, as you’ve said, more of these stories could be told in this way. I’m reminded of the experience of reading Caroline Moorehead’s A Train in Winter. At times it was overwhelming, the number of individual stories shared in only a couple of pages, so that it felt like reading a list of names and dates sometimes, which was too much for a lot of readers, but the idea of “leaving out” someone’s story was a disheartening idea too (to say the least). Perhaps the ultimate problem is, as usual, that if more publishers were presenting works on these subjects (meaning WIlkerson’s material, more so than Moorehead’s), there would be a variety of works to choose from, and we wouldn’t feel like a single work had to “do it all”?

    • November 14, 2013 8:41 pm

      I agree with you. I enjoyed the book because Wilkerson pulled out three stories from the great mass of people who were part of the migration north. I think it was easier for me to understand the different paths that people took and how life in the southern U.S. differed from opportunities and challenges in the northern and western states. I also liked how she tried to at least be somewhat representative in pulling individuals with different travel paths – Florida up along the East Coast; Georgia (? it’s been awhile since I read it) to the Midwest; and then westward.

      Eva, I agree with you that presentation of more individual viewpoints would have been useful in assessing the accuracy of the conclusions that she draws. I think she makes a lot of conclusions but it’s not readily apparent to us if she’s basing her analysis solely on the three persons at the center of her narrative or the sum total of all of her interviews. A little clarification would have been nice.

      My other complaint with the book was that it was a bit repetitive and needed some editing. I appreciate the fact that Wilkerson wanted to tell these stories but I don’t think that meant that she needed to put every last detail in or repeat the storyline when picking up a particular individual’s narrative.

  4. November 14, 2013 7:25 pm

    Ohhh, that is disappointing to hear – I’ve had this book on my to-read list for a while and was basically counting on enjoying it. I think I did know that it focused on three people’s journey, but I think in the back of mind I was still assuming that the “bigger picture” would still be quite present.

  5. November 14, 2013 8:02 pm

    What a shame! I secretly never wanted to read this book in the first place because I don’t truly enjoy reading about American history I KNOW I AM THE WORST, but I would have said it was the perfect book for you. Did at least she cite interesting books in her bibliography that you can try reading instead?

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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