Book Review: The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great MigrationThe Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Warmth of Other Suns is a transformative book, one that can profoundly change and shape the way we view American history. The list of awards and accolades is so long the book does not need my imprimatur, but I will echo each by saying, “Read this.”

From 1915 to 1970, thousands of black Americans undertook a pilgrimage of hope and determination that led them from cotton fields, rice and tobacco plantations, from villages and towns in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia to a new world in the north. They followed the trails and tracks of the Underground Railroad laid down by generations of escaped slaves and abolitionists before them, settling primarily in Chicago, Milwaukee, Gary, IN, New York, Newark and Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Oakland. It was, as the author states, “…the first mass act of independence by a people who were in bondage in the country far longer than they have been free.” (p. 10) It was an act of individuals and families – breaking free of the cruel grip of Jim Crow – that grew into an extended social revolution. It was perhaps the most significant event of 20th century America and few of us know anything about it.

That Isabel Wilkerson is an award-winning journalist is evident in her intense, encompassing and rigorous research. She conducted over twelve hundred interviews and spent several years examining primary source documents, scholarly and literary works that witness, analyze and recount the beginnings of Jim Crow South in the 1880’s, through the end of the Great Migration in the 1970’s.

But Ms. Wilkerson is also a consummate story-teller. The Warmth of Other Sons is one of the finest pieces of narrative non-fiction I have read. She takes the very difficult subject of Jim Crow – one that is so horrifying it is hard to absorb and accept – and humanizes it by telling the stories of three participants in the Great Migration. We ride a train north in the late 1930’s from Mississippi to Milwaukee with pregnant Ida Mae Gladney, her husband and two small children, who abandon their lives as cotton sharecroppers and eventually make a home in Chicago’s South Side. We escape from Florida’s citrus groves to Harlem in 1945 with George Swanson Starling, who risks lynching by organizing his fellow fruit pickers to strike for higher wages. We travel the long highway miles between Monroe, Louisiana to Los Angeles, California with Dr. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster in 1953 and imagine a life of respect and glamour that surely awaits an educated, handsome, well-spoken black man – in diverse, liberal Southern California.

Wilkerson weaves these narratives along parallel lines, taking us through each stage of the migrants’ journeys concurrently, pausing to describe the social and political conditions that existed in the region or the era. Rarely have I read a non-fiction work that provides so complete a foundation and builds a structure without overwhelming the narrative in detail.

The author tells these migrants’ stories with grace and empathy, but does not sentimentalize or over-dramatize history. She presents the ugliness and horror of Jim Crow and the racism that existed in the North – where discrimination could not be identified by a set of written rules and laws, but was nearly as prevalent and cruel as in the South – without making caricatures of its heroes and villains, as too often happens in literary works.

One of the vital outcomes of studying history is compassion developed through greater understanding and knowledge. Although the Great Migration nominally ended in the 1970’s, after the Civil Rights Movement of the previous decade tore away the Jim Crow curtain from the South, it is a story without end. We are a nation of immigrants, celebrating the American promise of life, liberty, and happiness, yet we remain divided by class, color, economics, education and vision. We are largely integrated, but not always comfortably. Isabel Wilkerson offers a transcendent work that is epic in scope but relayed in the most personal, relevant way. It is the quintessential American story: perseverance and hope in the face of injustice and hate. With works as fine as Isabel Wilkerson’s, it is my hope that history can light a way to a better future for all.

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Book Review: The Help, Kathryn Stockett

The HelpThe Help by Kathryn Stockett

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I sat down one evening to skim through the first few pages of The Help to determine if I would proceed with a full read. I was immediately hooked and a couple of sessions later I closed the back cover. I didn’t have to work hard- this is a compulsively readable novel. That this is such an easy read troubles me. Its subject matter is as heavy as Mississippi in August, but the tone is often as breezy as girls’ night out in Venice Beach.

For all the accolades and attention Kathryn Stockett has received for telling the hidden-in-plain-sight truth of Jim Crow South in the 1960’s, I felt cheated by her story-telling. Aibileen and Minny, black women who have spent their lives in service to white families, are portrayed with unsentimental clarity. These women are the real stories, the voices I most wanted to hear. Yet it was as if Stockett didn’t trust her ability to carry a full novel in these characters. Instead, she relies on Skeeter – a young white woman who is having a “Eureka” moment of conscience and self-awakening – as the central protagonist. Skeeter is not a compelling narrator and every moment with her was a moment stolen from the characters whose lives should have been the central focus, the eponymous “Help”.

In addition, the character of Celia is wasted in a mush of contradictions and implausible behavior. It makes zero sense that a tough-as-nails girl from the hollers couldn’t boil water for coffee. Her presence in the plot is inexplicable, as she neither evolves as a character nor moves the story along. Oddly enough, I adored her. I just wish she would have been allowed to grow and participate in the story, instead of remaining its unfunny punchline.

The narrative comes alive in the delicate dance of shame, anger, control and love experienced by so many of the characters, white and black. The real story is rock-solid Aibileen in the Leefolt home as the family cook, maid and child care provider; it is rebel Minny submitting to her abusive husband, determined to keep her family together; it is society-grasping Elizabeth Leefolt, as she feels the desperate tug between convention and her conscience, which struggles to rise from the swamp of racial segregation; it is the deep love between Aibileen and little Mae Mobley Leefolt, contrasted brilliantly with the cold affect Mae Mobley receives from her emotionally stunted mother. These relationships are so compelling, you know that Stockett is writing from her heart, and they are what make this a beautiful read.

The awakening of the women who constitute “The Help” as they tell their stories is also remarkable. But again, the milquetoast and ironically ambitious Skeeter, with her hapless attempts at romance, gets in the way. There is a moment when her motives at gathering and publishing these stories are questioned by an embittered maid, Gretchen, but Stockett drops this in and quickly retreats. It’s as if she isn’t certain herself who should profit from the telling of these stories, the white woman who can walk away from controversy to a shiny new life in New York City, or the black women who risk everything- their jobs, their homes, their lives- to share the truth.

There is potential for a much more profound and revelatory story from this gifted and passionate writer. It made me long for the heartbreaking honesty and poetry of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and the novel that changed forever how whites told the story of Jim Crow, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. These novels have withstood the test of history; I don’t see The Help holding the same ground.