The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (thoughts)
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!