Book review: “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou

When Maya Angelou died in 2014 at the age of 86, she was one of the towering figures of American culture and politics. Poet, author, civil rights activist, speaker, friend and advisor to figures of national and international importance, her career was, by any standards, glittering. And yet, her start was a decidedly inauspicious one. In the late 1960s she was persuaded to begin writing an autobiography and she went on to publish it in seven volumes, the latest one appearing in 2013, just a year before her death. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is the first volume and covers her childhood and coming of age. Her early life in Arkansas featured parental abandonment, overt racism, sexual abuse, discrimination and poverty. It is a sobering tale, and a testament to her immense ability, that someone with that kind of background could become such a great and important figure, well-known not just in the United States, but throughout the world.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings imgI chose this book for my 2018 Facebook Reading Challenge. The June theme was an autobiography, a tricky category since enjoyment can often depend on your feelings about the author. I also wanted to avoid titles that would most likely have been ghost-written. After thinking about it for some time, I chose this, the first volume in Angelou’s memoir series, and the one which is often considered to be the best. It can be read as a stand-alone.

I had read it myself many years ago; I have written on here before that at some point in my teens, I resolved to work my way along my local library bookshelves starting at ‘A’! I read the first five volumes (the fifth was published in 1986 when I would have been 18, so I imagine I did not read them all consecutively). I remember I enjoyed the book at the time, and parts of it were familiar, coming back to it so many years later, not least the horrific scene where she is raped by her mother’s lover. This aspect of Maya’s story, like all the other terrible instances of injustice she experienced, is told without self-pity (apart, perhaps from the toothache!) or sentimentality, and this, I think, is the mark of her greatness as a writer.

I loved also, the evocation of the setting – 1930s Arkansas is set out vividly before us, particularly the evangelical Christianity of the black community, the tense relations with their white neighbours on the other side of town, and the poverty of the community, scraping a meagre living in the most challenging of circumstances, from cotton-picking, domestic service or, in the case of Maya’s grandmother “Momma”, from running a small business.

I also loved the language – the Deep South comes across so profoundly in the words and phrases used by the author, such as the wonderful term “powhitetrash” to refer to the prejudiced white townspeople of Stamps who blight the lives of the black community with their bullying, their cruelty and their vulgar behaviour. And I loved the characters, from the young Maya, to her elder brother Bailey, whom she adored, to Momma, the starched Christian woman of steadfast values and brilliant business acumen. The author brings them alive so skilfully that they walk the pages of this book.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is a must-read. I trust that it is on academic reading lists throughout the United States, but it should also form part of the historical context for any student of American history. It is not an easy read and the nature of the language definitely slows the pace (it took me twice as long to read as any other book of this size), but you would do well to read it slowly as the pace draws you into the languid lifestyle of the setting. Someone on the Facebook group listened to the audiobook, narrated by Angelou, herself, which sounds like a must-listen. Coincidentally, the book was also abridged for Radio 4’s book of the week recently, and that should still be available online. It was very good.

Highly recommended, should probably even be on everyone’s books bucket list.

If you have read Maya Angelou’s memoirs what impact did they have on you?

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YA book review: “The Nowhere Girls” by Amy Reed

The Nowhere Girls imgThis is a very hard-hitting YA novel for older teens. It is an important book, dealing with a very current issue, misogyny, sexual violence and rape, but as a parent I found it extremely challenging to read. The story is set in Prescott, Oregon, a medium sized-town in the northwest United States. It centres on a group of three girls in high school (so about 17 or 18 years old) Grace, Erin and Rosina. Grace has moved to Prescott after her mother (an evangelical preacher) was forced out of her position in their previous home in the southern US because of hostility from the congregation towards her views. Grace finds, in her bedroom in their new home, some cryptic words scratched into the woodwork. She discovers that the previous occupant of the room was a girl called Lucy who alleged that she was raped by fellow students. No charges were brought and Lucy and her family left the town.

Grace struggles to make friends in her new school, because of her southern accent and her newness, but eventually connects up with Erin and Rosina, relative misfits in the school community. Erin has Asperger’s and her mother is over-protective and a zealous moderator of various social media groups and forums. Her obsession with this activity and her over-anxious concern to do all the right things, inhibits her from having a truly meaningful relationship with her daughter. Rosina comes from a large extended South American immigrant family and has a tempestuous relationship with her mother and her other relatives for whom she has to work for little or no pay, babysitting and waitressing.

The three girls are thrown together and Grace learns about what happened to Lucy, the author of the words scratched into the woodwork. Like her mother, Grace is earnest and a campaigner and she vows to do something about this unresolved issue. She sets up a secret group, calling it The Nowhere Girls, with a view to the young women at the school sharing their experiences and, Grace hopes, banding together to do something about the widespread misogyny. The group takes off in ways that none of its three founders could have anticipated; their secret meetings, held after dark in abandoned or remote locations, are well-attended and the young women share stories of widespread rape, and violent or coercive sexual encounters. The girls decide to go on a sex strike, to teach the boys a lesson, and as news of this spreads, the school authorities become increasingly angered and concerned about the reputation of the school and about the effect it is having on the stability of the school community.

As the book progresses events take on increasingly sinister turns. As the meetings of the Nowhere Girls expand it becomes clear that whilst misogyny and taking girls’ sexual availability for granted are widespread, the worst offences seem to have been committed by a small group of boys. Also, the Principal of the school becomes ever more extreme in her determination to stamp out the disruption caused by the Nowhere Girls, engaging in the kinds of blackmail and threats and that are effectively colluding with the perpetrators of the sexual crimes. The book is hinting at a wider social acceptance of rape and sexual violence as inevitable and quietly endorsed by those with vested interests in a storm not being created.

Once I had got past my initial doubts about the book’s basic premise, I found it a real page-turner. As a parent of teenagers I also found it a useful insight into a world I no longer know, not the sexual violence side of things, but the feelings of young women about their relationships with their parents, their relationships with each other and their hopes and desires around romantic partners. Coming back to the book’s premise, that rape and sexual violence are pretty common in high schools, accuse me of living under a rock if you like, but I found this difficult to accept as a phenomenon. Remember this is set in the US, so things may be different over there, but it painted a much more extreme view of a middle class high school community than was familiar to me. Perhaps I’m out of touch, but…

There are some sub-plots in the book, which help to lighten the load, for example, the relationships all three central characters have with their mothers, and the rather nicer romantic attachments they develop, including, in Rosina’s case, an exploration of her burgeoning homosexuality. But there is no doubt the book is at times graphic and disturbing, and therefore, I would suggest, suitable for older teens only. I think there are many important issues handled here, and they are sensitively done, but I would suggest it should be read by parents first before handing to under 18s. It may also form a useful basis for discussing these sorts of issues with your teens.

Do you think parents should ‘vet’ books before their teens read them?

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