Wednesday, September 10, 2014

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

I Know Why the Caged Bird SingsI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I usually wait until after my book club meetings to review the month's selection. But I read this month's so far in advance, I'm backing up the rest of my review list if I delay it that long.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a classic, in that I first heard of it from underclassmen being "forced" to read it in public school. It deserves better, but I don't know a better way to get in front of students' eyes than assigning it as mandatory. It bridges the period that spurred the Civil Rights Movement, and shows the hardships of descendants of freed slaves, and everyone who looked like them. It lends a perspective on a piece of history we commonly associate with the Dust Bowl and WWII.

The book tells the story of Maya (Marguerite) Johnson, who grows up in Stamps, Arkansas. She and her older brother, Bailey, are sent there to live with their grandmother when their parents separate. Their mother briefly claims them in Chicago, but they're sent back to Stamps after a rape by her mother's boyfriend leaves Maya unwilling to speak. Racial tensions eventually lead their grandmother to take them to their mother's new home in San Francisco. While it's less overtly racist, Maya still runs into a lot of limitations, most notably when she decides she'll be a street car operator and has to persist at this ambition for weeks while the gatekeepers politely hope she'll go away.

The book reads as a series of loosely connected vignettes, rather than a single novel. It is autobiographical, so it's no coincidence that it reads more like a memoir. I kept waiting for a connecting narrative thread, and, while the themes and tone and voice remain the same throughout, it felt uneven. The resolution at the end of the book felt anticlimactic.

Despite the horror of rape, that's one of the easier parts of the books to read. Young Maya puts the reader right into her head leading up to the event, and in its aftermath. She depicts the violence done to that young body and mind without ever describing it in violent terms. Through her eyes, one sees the absurdity of asking an 8-year-old what she was wearing to provoke the attack, even while modern news outlets describe a young rape survivor as looking older than her years.

The language in this book is lovely. I've often found that poets are better at prose than novelists are at poetry. Despite the disjointed nature of the story, it felt like every word was there because it needed to be, and that to remove one was to destroy the whole flow. Angelou captures sentiments and experiences vividly in a few well-chosen words.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings isn't always a pleasant book to read. It shines a light on a lot of aspects of history the majority of Westerners have been allowed, even encouraged, to overlook. Racism is easier to stomach when it's evil Germans perpetrating it. When it's the people we've been identifying with throughout history, it's jarring. That is precisely why this is a valuable book to read, despite the difficult themes and the terrible ordeal young Maya survives. We could all do with a little more empathy.

I listened to this book on audio, read by the author. Generally, I've found the audio books I've liked best were read by the author, who, after all, knew exactly where the emphasis was supposed to go and how to pronounce all the names and places. It's the closest you can be to curling up inside the author's thoughts while she wrote. There were times when Angelou sounded exasperated with her own words, but she was definitely the best narrator for these words.


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