Magpie Book Club: Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns.

It took me a long time to get through Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, a historical account of the Great Migration (I started in June and did not finish until last week), but it was worth it. The book dislodges everything I thought I knew about the movement of Black Americans from the South to urban centers in the North and West in the 20th century by anchoring the phenomenon in the real, lived experience of three brave migrants who chose to leave their homes in Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana in search of better and more equitable futures. The book is astonishingly beautiful — lyrical, balladic! — in tenor, and Wilkerson’s retelling of the biographies of these three individuals treats them with the dignity they deserved but did not receive during their lifetimes. I’ve never read anything quite like this book. For the most part, it felt in texture more like a novel, or a memoir. And it deftly acknowledges the complexity of this historical movement — accommodating its messiness and the fact that it cannot be reduced to a simple thesis because it was driven by the complex inner workings of complex human beings in complex socio-economic times — while also drawing broader conclusions that in fact thwart many of the commonly-received interpretations of the migration. I came to the book believing that the Great Migration was about cotton, economics, and the end of the final vestiges of slavery in the American South, and Wilkerson demonstrates just how over-simplistic that reading is.

The book also felt like the transcription of an oral history project. You could tell from the way it was written — from the hyper focus on minutiae like the specific foods they packed in shoeboxes on the trains North — that Wilkerson spent years and years listening to dozens and dozens of individual stories, and how lucky we are that she did. For one thing, by the time of the book’s publication, all three of its protagonists had passed away, as have — presumably — nearly all of the pioneers in the Great Migration that could “set the record straight” on how things actually felt at the time. Had they passed away without Wilkerson’s project, we would have lost an entire generation’s worth of firsthand stories about the Great Migration, which has proven to be one of the most powerful forces in shaping modern urban America.

The book is sprawling in a way that befits the scope of the movement and the complexity of the lives of its three protagonists. The only minor quibble I have is with its editor, as I found many redundant passages, especially in the second half of the book. (For example, we hear about Dr. Robert Foster’s grandson getting into Ivy league schools about three times within the span of ten pages, and each time, the information is presented as if new.) This made for occasionally over-dense and mildly frustrating reading.

All in, the book was a reminder — as I wrote a few weeks ago — that history is non-monolithic. History is messy because people are messy. We are driven by myriad seen and unseen forces. This book acknowledges and celebrates that truth.

Interestingly, I read this book while also listening to Andre Leon Talley’s memoir, The Chiffon Trenches, and I couldn’t have picked a better companion audiobook if I tried. Talley is himself a product of the Great Migration, having been raised in Jim Crow-era North Carolina before moving to New York City as a young man in pursuit of a better future for himself. He speaks candidly about the racism he endured throughout his career, and expresses a kind of emotional duality that Wilkerson describes as common among many migrants: he is both endeared to and repelled by his Southern roots. Talley’s memoir is fascinating, full of juicy intel on some of the fashion world’s biggest names (read: Anna Wintour, Anna Wintour, Anna Wintour) and what can only be described as a full-on, intense love affair with the craft of clothing. His writing is at its best when lingering over what people are wearing: these passages read like poetry, and in a startlingly non-trivial way. He is easy to love: principled but pragmatic. I left the book profoundly inspired by his example. (It was also a joy to hear him narrate his own memoir in the audiobook — his voice is so distinctive, dramatic, playful, self-aware.)

Have you read or listened to either of these books? What did you think?

Discussion Questions for the Warmth of Other Suns.

+Did you come into the book with an interpretation of what The Great Migration was? Did the book change that interpretation?

+Why do you think Wilkerson chose to follow the lives of Ida Mae, George, and Robert? Why them? Why three instead of two or five?

+Did you like the structure of the book? Why or why not? Why do you think Wilkerson chose to write it in this way?

+What do you think were the key motivators that led Ida Mae, George, and Robert to leave their homes in the South?

+There are many horrific sections of the book that demonstrate the violence and scope of racism in America. Did any of those sections surprise you or stick with you in a way that bears comment?

+Why do you think Wilkerson positioned Ida Mae, George, and Robert as “immigrants”?

+What portion of the book was most compelling to you?

Post-Scripts.

+I am currently enjoying The Heir Affair on my Kindle (a sequel to The Royal We — essentially, royal family fan fiction) and Bess Kalb’s Nobody Will Tell You This But Me on audiobook. The latter is absolutely charming thus far. In it, Kalb creatively splices voice messages and narration from the imagined perspective of her deceased grandmother to piece together a love story between grandmother and granddaughter.

+What I plan to read next: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (one of the few remaining unread books on my What to Read This Summer list) and, for fun, Lucy Foley’s newest thriller, The Guest List, which has been described as “Agatha-Christie-like.” Yes.

+What I plan to listen to next on audiobook: Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl.

+This pretty floral maxi gives me LSF vibes. Love the green!

+Such a good price for such darling quilted cosmetic kits in on-trend block print!

+Dying over Roller Rabbit’s latest print for children’s pajamas! Hill needs these.

+These gold bangles are so fun. I actually just ordered mini one of their children sized bangles as a gift for going back to school. Last year, I bought her this personalized cloud bracelet inscribed with a nickname we have for her. I don’t intend to make this a yearly thing, but I do think she’ll get a kick out of wearing a gold bangle as I wear a gold bangle daily now, too! (A 10 year anniversary gift from Mr. Magpie to add to my everyday jewelry stack.)

+Have I been living under a rock? I didn’t even know crib rail covers were a thing until I found these. I wish I’d known about them months ago because Hill is part beaver — he has gnawed the heck out of his crib rail! You can also find precious monogrammed styles here and here.

+More great Etsy finds here.

+Who is in your personal canon?

+A really good price on adorable swim trunks for a little boy (buy now, wear next summer), a precious $34 blue and white dress for a little lass, and $13 polos!!!

+ICYMI: this $65 top is a dead ringer for this Ulla Johnson statement.

+More high-end looks for less.

+This $200 wicker mirror is MAJOR.

+And this embellished sweater is also MAJOR.

+These sconces can be plugged into the wall, versus hard wired — amazing for achieving a custom look without the expense of tearing up your wall, hiring an electrician, etc.

+Some of my favorite passages ever.

+Adore this scalloped sheet set.

+$88 for these beyond adorable bow heels.

+Just ordered this concealer after so many rave reviews!

9 Comments

  1. Jen,

    Hope all is well. I second MK’s thoughts and thank you for the review. It’s the motivation I need to finally crack it open. I’ve been avoiding it because, as a multi-racial woman with parents from the south, I know there will be painful parts–parts that reflect many of my grandparents experiences. But my goal this year is to learn to sit with discomfort, and his seems like a good first step.

    Also, as an English lit major whose favorite author is Agatha Christie (*insert gasps of horror from all my high brow classmates*), I can’t wait to check out The Guest List!

    Lastly, I’m so glad you linked to your personal canon post. I’m putting together a reading list for the books I want to read before I’m 30 (three more years!). It’s a current mash up of St. John’s Great Books list, my own personal canon, and friends’ suggestions. I’ll be borrowing from your canon too. I know you have so many great suggestions on the site already, but based on this specific phase of my life, is there anything specific you would recommend?

    1. Hi Veronica!! Thanks so much for this note – I can appreciate that this book will be heavy reading for you given your heritage and will be waiting to hear your thoughts. Books in your late 20s…hmm! That’s a great provocation. I think Mary Oliver, for me, would have been extremely influential in a good way at that time. She writes with so much perspective, gentleness, patience, wonderment. In my late 20s at least, I did not know what I did not know; she might have been helpful in framing and giving perspective to the great unknown of adulthood. She would also have reminded me to start small and look closely at the world around me — so much to appreciate. I also think that anything by Jane Austen would be good companionship in your 20s. She writes so carefully and astutely about human nature, and she shows how even great people have their flaws and can be corrected — the books are full of wonderfully drawn, round characters trying to make sense of their worlds and the relationships within them, and she is both generous and wise in how she handles them.

      What else is on your list?!

      xx

    2. Jen–totally forgot about this until today!

      Do you have a recommendation on where to start with Mary Oliver? I went to the book store and couldn’t decide.

      I have a few quirky and a few more traditional reads:
      -The U.S. Constitution (just finished…wow, the forethought.)
      – The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald (want to reread as an adult…I feel like there are so many gems I missed as a sophomore in high school.)
      – Notes of a Native Son by Baldwin
      – “On Not Knowing Greek” by Woolf
      – Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant by Grant (I recently found out that Twain helped Grant write this on Grant’s deathbed).
      – My Brilliant Friend series by Ferrante
      – NW by Zadie Smith
      – Harriet the Spy by Fitzhugh (a classic!)

      …so many more, but I’m sure this comment is long enough!

    3. Ooo! What a fantastic list! I immediately looked up “On Not Knowing Greek.” Had not heard of that! Added to my tsundoku immediately…

      For Mary Oliver – I love her last set of essays, “Upstream.” They are gorgeous, thoughtful, caring, tinkering little pieces on nature and life. I find it difficult to sit down and read a book of poetry, so I prefer essays and then maybe a poem or two of hers on occasion.

      xx

  2. Thank you so much for your review of The Warmth of Other Suns! I’ve owned a copy for several years and have not made the chance to dive in as of yet … you have me wanting to start! I did pick up a copy of Wilkerson’s new book, Caste, which looks amazing and very worthwhile β€” eager to hear from any other people who may have read it or heard things about it. I try not to read too many proper reviews prior to reading books, but will always make an exception for your thoughts! πŸ™‚

    Also, I’m eager to hear what you think about The Vanishing Half! I read it earlier this summer and really enjoyed it. I’m considering downloading The Heir Affair to my iPad as well β€” don’t think it’s worth the $28 to buy the hardcover, as I doubt I would read it more than once, but getting the e-book sounds like the perfect solution.

    I’m currently halfway through SanaΓ« Lemoine’s The Margot Affair (a worthwhile read!) Next on my list, novel-wise, is Luster by Raven Leilani. For nonfiction, I’m finishing An American Summer (about gun violence in Chicago) and will read one of Wilkerson’s books next β€” just trying to decide between The Warmth of Other Suns and Caste.

    xx

    1. I always love to hear what you’re reading, MK! You always have your finger to the pulse. Thanks for these recs. Strongly encourage Warmth of Other Suns, with the caveat that it is a commitment that might be better suited for certain seasons than others (i.e., less busy ones). I am so, so glad I read it. That was the resounding refrain from the little book club I have with my sister, cousin, and two good friends, who read it alongside me: “We are SO GLAD WE READ THIS.”

      xx

    2. MK – I have read (but can’t say firsthand, because I have not read Caste yet!) that Caste is a great primer if you feel less informed about how we (meaning Americans) describe and understand racial hierarchy in America. Traci Thomas from The Stacks podcast has a great review on Instagram. You may want to start with Caste if you feel this way, or you may want to dive into Warmth of Other Suns if you feel like you’ve got a good handle on it.

      I am about 50% of the way through Warmth of Other Suns, and it is SO good. I have so many of the same thoughts as you do, Jen – the writing is just magnificent, and the narratives are so powerful. I loved your comment about it being an oral history – I agree. I am listening to it, but I wish I were reading it because I really want to annotate and flesh out my thoughts in marginalia.

      I love the structure. I find that nonfiction works well with nonlinear stories and interweaving of micro-anecdotes and macro-data/history. I love writers who play with perspective and time, but I find it harder to pull off masterfully in fiction than in nonfiction. (I say this as a reader, not a writer.) I like working a little to orient myself when I’m reading, I guess!

      I think the three stories work well – any fewer and you wouldn’t have enough anecdotal evidence to make it readable for the lay reader, and any more would muddy the waters and make it hard to follow. As it is, I need to rewind every now and again to remember who George, or Robert, or Ida or Inez or any of the other characters are.

      Another book I am reading right now is “Biased” by Jennifer Eberhardt, Phd. It is fascinatingand is helping me understand so much about why bias occurs and the racism it manifests. I really, really, really recommend it. She’s also a wonderful writer and is scary smart. I’m in awe of her.

    3. Thank you for these thoughts, Annie, and for the two other book suggestions. I completely agree with your assessment on the success of using three stories in The Warmth of Other Suns. I also liked that their narratives exposed us to three major destination points of the Great Migration (LA, Chicago, NYC) and three very different economic/professional pathways, too. It offered such a round and complicated set of portraits of the varied migrants that participated in the movement, and that fact alone was eye-opening to me.

      xx

    4. Annie! Thank you so much for your thoughtful take on Caste and The Warmth of Other Suns. I appreciate it so much β€” and Biased is now on my TBR list as well! Thank you!

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