Emphasis On "Great"!

Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns is as advertised: extraordinary, brilliant, lyrical, even "magisterial" (even though it's blurbed on the cover — incidentally kind of strange being that the source material is neither from the Times' Sunday Book Review review nor the weekday Arts review [notable books get both] but rather from the lead sentence in a profile about Wilkerson — I actually think it's an odd pullout word of praise; the dictionary definition is something along the lines of "authoritative" but with a little baggage of "doctrinaire" and other negative connotations; it certainly sounds like a good word to use though).

The book is a sympathetic, thorough and wide-ranging telling of the migration stories of three ordinary African Americans during the Great Migration, the era roughly between WWI and 1970s when millions of blacks moved out of the South. I don't think it's a big stretch to say that most of our understanding of this history is perhaps limited to Jacob Lawrence, in which case Wilkerson's hugely readable and thoroughly engaging text is important. Even though Wilkerson interviewed 1200 people during research for the book, the focus is on the three individuals — a woman who migrated to Chicago in the 1930s, a man who migrated to Harlem in the 1940s and an educated man who migrated to Los Angeles in the 1950s — working on the macro and micro levels by weaving in the larger story about the Great Migration.

The effect sucks you completely in — their lives are deep and textured and indicative and emblematic without sacrificing individuality. That part is amazing. Along the way Wilkerson notes some boldface Americans who traveled similar paths across the country and it all makes that much more sense. Her subjects are fully formed characters, with flaws and tragic sides and hubris, which is necessary: you might be tempted to dislike a subject at times — at the same time her subjects never come across as perfectly outlined or too rooted in pathos; they're not victims. Which is where you start to discern Wilkerson's narrative: she makes the point over and over that these migrants are more like immigrants (in the pre-2016 Alexander Hamilton kind of way) than you might think. She cites studies and statistics, which you sort of gloss over, to support this idea. And the three people she profiles are all successful — not always American Dream successful, and not always when it came to their children — but for the most part successful: home-owning, reaching a comfortable retirement, vital to their respective communities. For sure, how fraught their gains are (or were — she writes about two of the characters' deaths; those parts are tear-jerking in the extreme) is always hanging over the book, but the statement is unmistakable — these are the stories of survivors. It's big and even lyrical, but it's a bold choice, too.

Another conscious flourish that you'll notice is how repetitive the stories are: not from subject to subject but in the same person — even just pages apart. It's noticeable and obviously on purpose: I'm guessing it is meant to evoke someone telling a story, what with the repetition in that and circling back and emphasizing this or that. Not sure if I like it (Suns is over 500 pages) but I understand it on that level at least. Another part that reveals itself but which isn't — or shouldn't be — a big issue is that old pitfall of oral history, that being how much of the story is actually 100 percent true. I don't think it matters, especially when it comes to motivation to move to find a better life, which is by its nature internal (at least in part) (by which I mean that perceived or real matters little when it comes to a person's motivation; the motivation is the story). But Wilkerson never really says anything either way (which is kind of an interesting choice when you think about it); somewhere along the way you wonder how this is all factchecked — not that it necessarily has to be (but if it is I'm really impressed) (but if it isn't I think it's OK to at least account for that somehow, too) (this falls by the wayside when you get sucked into the book though).

Posted: August 1st, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: