Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Wow. I Just Finished a Terrific Book

Several years ago I plucked a nonfiction book off the shelves at my local independent bookstore, and a blurb on the back cover said something to the effect of  "Every American should read this book and read it today." So I did. (Yes, I really am just that impressionable.) The book was The Working Poor: Invisible in America, by David K. Shipler, and it opened my eyes to an aspect of our culture that I hadn't given much thought to before. (Although now, with the financial wherewithal of a co-owner of a small independent bookstore, it's much more familiar to me now.)

I think the novel The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, with it's draw-back-the-curtain look at the life of African American maids in the South has resonated with people for a similar reason. It's a view into a part of our culture and history that they might not have thought about before.

The book I just finished reading, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, should also have that advice on its back cover, that every American should read this book and read it today, as it gives us an eye-opening in-depth view into the lives of the almost six million black citizens who migrated north and west from the South between 1915 and 1970. It's not always easy to read their stories -- the cruelties and harm they suffered are unthinkable -- but it's important. "By the time the Great Migration was over," the author writes, "few Americans had not been touched by it."

Most of us have read at least a story or two about foreign immigrants coming to this country -- what drove them to leave (potato famine, war, cruelty and abuse, lack of opportunity or freedom, etc), the courage it took for them to leave their homes and families to move some place unfamiliar with different rules and customs and cultures and in some cases languages, and the challenges and discrimination they faced in their newly adopted homes. But how many of us have read about the African Americans in our own country, who basically lived out similar stories?

The Warmth of Other Suns is a fascinating story, beautifully told by Isabel Wilkerson, Director of Narrative Nonfiction at Boston University and herself the offspring of two who migrated out of the South. She is also the winner of the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing while she was the Chicago bureau chief of The New York Times -- the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism.Wilkerson's organizational structure is genius: She tells the individual stories of three people -- a woman who left Mississippi in the '30s to move to Chicago, a man who left Florida in the '40s to move to New York City, and a man who left Louisiana in the '50s to move to California -- to tell the larger (and previously mostly untold) story of The Great Migration.

"I wanted to convey the intimate stories of people who had dared to make the crossing," the author says. She conducted preliminary interviews with more than two hundred people to find the three subjects whose stories she would tell in depth. She then interviewed her primary and secondary subject for "dozens, if not hundreds of hours," interviewing witnesses, cohorts and family members, wading through dozens of scholarly works of the times, reading newspaper accounts dating back to 1900, and researching census, military, railroad, school, state, and municipal records, all to confirm or clarify what she learned in the interviews. She even reenacted all or part of each subject's migration route.

This book has been selling strongly at the store -- in part because almost everyone who buys a copy and starts reading it comes back to buy at least one more to give away to a friend or relative. I wrote about this book in December as part of our 24 Days of Books blog (you'll also find a short video of the author with that post), but I had only read snippets of it at that time. Now that I have finished the entire book I can say, wholeheartedly, everyone should read this book. Today. David Levering Lewis, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography, calls it "an American masterpiece" and "a stupendous literary success." I couldn't agree more. The book was recently named a finalist for this year's National Book Critics Circle award for nonfiction, and The New York Times named it one of the top five nonfiction books of 2010. If you haven't gathered by now, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is phenomenal -- with the added bonus of a gorgeous cover, a beautiful font, and quality paper. Just a delightful reading experience all the way around.

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