I've wanted to read this book since it first came out a few years ago, and immediately bought it once it was available on paperback, but have continued to be intimidated by its size. Despite its size, I decided to pack it for vacation, figuring that I would be forced to finally read it if I didn't have any other choices. While it was definitely too big to carry around in my purse, it was the perfect companion for trainrides from Stockholm to Copenhagen, and Copenhagen to Gothenburg.
While the book may be large, and information packed, it isn't necessarily very dense non-fiction. I couldn't zip through it like a novel, but it wasn't as dense as some other non-fiction I've read. From what I've recently discovered, this book would probably count as narrative nonfiction. Using the lives of three separate participants of the Great Migration, Wilkerson explores the causes and effects of the Great Migration, puts some myths to rest and shows how the effects can still be felt to this day. Her three subjects represent different aspects of the Great Migration, though they are close to each other in age, Ida Mae being the oldest of them. All three are from different regions, ended up settling in different parts of the North and West, and left the South in a different decade. Since Wilkerson explains that the train lines basically determined where people went, which is why Chicago tends to have people with a background from Mississippi, Newark and New York migrants tend to be from the southern east coast, and so forth (I can't quite remember all the examples but it was fascinating). As a result, her choices made perfect sense to me. Ida Mae Gladney was a sharecropper's wife that left Mississippi in the '30s and ended up in Chicago after a short stay in Milwaukee. George Starling fled Florida in the '40s after he had protested against unfair wages, and settled in New York City. Robert Foster, a doctor, left his home in Louisiana (and his wife's home of Atlanta) for the opportunities of LA in the 1950s. The three combined represent different backgrounds, destinations, and social-economic classes.
Intermixed with all their personal stories are the facts. Wilkerson presents the living conditions for black Americans in the South during the Jim Crow era, discusses the segregation, the fear of lynching and retributions for imagined wrongs. She also discusses common misconceptions, such as some people's beliefs that the migrants were lazy and uneducated, showing statistics and studies done at the time that actually demonstrated that the blacks moving to the cities in many cases were at least as educated as their white counterparts, and more educated than Northern blacks. She also discusses how hard it was for these former Southerners to find places to live outside of a small block radius, leading to hugely segregrated areas that still affect these cities today. Blacks were being paid less for harder work, and charged more for smaller apartments, which basically meant they had to work a lot just to afford a place to live, often having to leave their children alone which made them vulnerable to other distractions and the negatives of city living. George's son, for example, became involved in drugs.
Robert Foster ended up being very successful in LA, but it felt like he always had something to prove. The people Wilkerson focuses on aren't always likable but their stories are fascinating. I wish I had actually read this sooner, and I also wish I could come even close to doing this book justice. It just has so much information that isn't discussed in other places, and has some very good analysis that is still relevant to the present day. Wilkerson repeats herself occasionally which is good in some cases because she does reference so many different people that a reminder is helpful, but in other cases it felt oddly placed. This is probably a minor editing issue, and certainly doesn't take away from the rest of book. I'd definitely recommend this since given the last few weeks it is obviously very relevant.