Monday, 23 July 2012
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is the first volume of Maya Angelou's autobiography and deals mainly with her childhood in the rural town of Stamps, Arkansas. Sent to her grandmother after her parents separate, Maya and her brother come of age in a Southern small town in the 1930s where segregation is total and racism everywhere. At eight, Maya moves to St Louis to live with her mother and is raped by her mother's new boyfriend before later experiencing new freedoms as a teenager in California.
I've been meaning to read this book for the longest time and it certainly lived up to my expectations. Angelou writes in a very simple way but her writing is extraordinarily evocative of place. Whether it was the general store in Stamps, the gambling clubs in St Louis or the slums of California, I felt as though I was right there with Angelou. She even manages to capture the atmosphere of each setting and infuse them with a sense of time and history.
There were some fantastic character portraits too. I enjoyed the sketch of the cotton pickers lining up at dawn outside the store full of optimism but back later in the evening with half empty sacks and wounded hands, full of worry about how they would feed their family through winter. Maya writes without judgement, which means she can provide a balanced portrayal of her mother, who wants to be a good mum but who is caught up in the excitement and glamour of life. Of course the character of Maya's grandmother comes through very strongly as she was the person who had the most impact on the young Maya. Her pride, strength and values are clear to see.
Even though this book deals with a lot of 'issues', I was pleased to see that it was also a coming of age story. Whilst racism, crime and rape are dealt with powerfully by Angelou, at it's heart I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is about the universal experience of growing up and contains hope as well as hardships. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it but did find the ending a bit abrupt. I know there are several other volumes in the autobiography but it would have been nice if this volume had a more complete ending, rather than just suddenly stopping at a new life event.
Recommended to everyone that's not had a chance to read it yet, this is an important book.
Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1983
Score: 4 out of 5