The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration is Isabel Wilkerson’s first tour de force, published in 2010. Her second is Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, which I reviewed earlier this year. Reading them in reverse order didn’t change the broad impact I felt from both books. Nor do I doubt that Wilkerson is a brilliant writer and social historian.

In The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson explains how Black families migrated from the Southern US to other parts of the country. This happened as early as The Underground Railroad and continued for most of the 20th century. She tells the stories of three individuals—Ida Mae Gladney, George Starling, and Robert Pershing Foster.

Wilkerson alternates chapters, explaining what each individual faced in the South and why they left. Then she covers how they left and where they went. Once each person settles Wilkerson then discusses their lives in the new state. For all of them, this includes their jobs, family, and social connections. She also talks about why they did or didn’t continue connecting to their Southern roots.

This format is the best of narrative nonfiction, as Wilkerson weaves her story arc among the various locales and each family’s unique reality. While telling these stories, all of the relevant historical details also come to light. Whether they face the Depression, the fight for voting rights, or other challenges, Gladney, Starling, and Foster comprise a well-rounded illustration of the Black American experience.

My conclusions

I was absolutely moved by the stories in The Warmth of Other Suns. The courage and resilience of each of these three people is just the tip of the migration’s iceberg. Wilkerson chose her subjects well, and their lives captivated me.

This book touches on a multitude of issues related to being Black in America over time. Even at 600+ pages, there are many topics to explore more fully in other readings. Still, I never felt like Wilkerson glossed over issues. She strikes just the right balance between providing detail and moving the narrative forward.

Together, Warmth and Caste offer readers a tremendous starting point in the often untold history of the United States and its treatment of Black people. I recommend both without reservation. Pair the two books together for the fullest experience.