August 6th, 2014

Book Review: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou

Book Review: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou - Sara du Jour

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings reads like a work of fiction. It’s vivid, engaging, and tells a fascinating story. But given the traumatic events and circumstances described within it, I wish it were just fiction instead.

Fiction allows you to go, “Well, it’s just a book,” and sweep any unpleasant thoughts or feelings away. (Even if some books are more reluctant to be swept away than others.) Instead, Maya Angelou’s memoir forces you to face racism, sexual abuse, and the transition from childhood to womanhood with the same unflinching gaze she does.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings tells the story of a young Maya Angelou (then Marguerite), from her early years until age fifteen – the cusp of womanhood and her career as a civil-rights activist. Growing up in the rural, sticky town of Stamps, Arkansas with her brother Bailey Jr. and grandmother “Momma” – owner of the only store in the black section of Stamps – she is witness to the debilitating effects of racism, prejudice, and the Great Depression firsthand.

Though the story navigates difficult, heavy subjects like sexual abuse and rape, it does so with the tact that only someone who has experienced them is capable of. They are always presented in the context of Maya’s own experiences, never as broad analyses of the subjects themselves.

What struck me most about this book was how honest it was. I can’t recall another book that so accurately describes what being a child is like, with all of its pride, curiosity, ignorance, thoughtfulness, confusions, arrogance, and frustrations. Maya is somehow able to tap into exactly those feelings and memories, and show her childhood self in as truthful a light as possible, unlike the idealized, impossible child so many stories present.

She is vibrant and precocious but very much human, and through her struggles you cannot help but root for her as she discovers her inner strength – even if you were completely unaware of the incredible, courageous, and inspiring woman Maya Angelou would become.

While reading, I was delighted and horrified in turns. Some of the experiences Maya and those around her endured were so abhorrent that simply reading about them made my stomach churn and blood boil. (Major trigger warnings for rape, sexual abuse, racism, and violence.)

What is so uniquely spectacular about this book is that despite everything, the pages contain so much life, and so much light, that you are left feeling uplifted and hopeful despite all the injustice and pain. That Maya Angelou was able to imbue the pages of her memoir with the triumph of her own spirit is its greatest success.

All in all, a beautiful book, and a must-read for just about anyone, I think. It is wise and witty and well-deserving of the praise and multiple accolades it has received, including being nominated for the National Book Award in 1970 and ranking in Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential books. Rest in peace, Maya Angelou. xx

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou – My Rating: 4.8/5

– Sara

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