Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Book Review: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

When I picked up I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou I knew two things:

1. The author is friends with Oprah and the Clintons.
2. The book is considered a classic.

Amazon describes the book this way -
"In this first of five volumes of autobiography, poet Maya Angelou recounts a youth filled with disappointment, frustration, tragedy, and finally hard-won independence. Sent at a young age to live with her grandmother in Arkansas, Angelou learned a great deal from this exceptional woman and the tightly knit black community there. These very lessons carried her throughout the hardships she endured later in life, including a tragic occurrence while visiting her mother in St. Louis and her formative years spent in California--where an unwanted pregnancy changed her life forever."
The book is mostly set in the tiny town of Stamps, Arkansas. I lived much of my childhood within an hour's drive of Stamps so I found that detail very interesting.

The account of life as a Negro (the term Ms. Angelou uses) in rural Arkansas was fascinating. Some of it brought to mind memories of my own childhood (though I am "lily white"). Ms. Angelou's detailed description of food left my mouth watering. Barbecue. Mmm! Fried chicken. Oh, yeah! Where can I get some of that?!

I felt outrage at the shoddy treatment Maya and other Negoes in her community received at the hands of Whites. I sympathized with the fear of lynchings (which I confess I've never learned much about). And I admired their ability to feel proud and strong under oppressive circumstances.

That's what I liked about the book.

I did NOT appreciate the explicit descriptions of Maya's rape at age 8 by her mother's boyfriend. Or those of her 11 year old brother "playing family" in a tent in the backyard. Or of her emotionless experience with a teenage neighbor which leaves Maya pregnant.

These accounts left me feeling sick to my stomach and in need of some way to cleanse my mind. I realize that these acts were horrendous but it seemed that Ms. Angelou went out of her way to make them as vulgar and disgusting as possible, which wasn't necessary to get her point across.

It is outrageous to me is that this book is used in 9th and 10th grade English classrooms. This book is NOT appropriate for teenagers! I won't quote you the explicit details Ms. Angelou uses. Trust me, I've read trashy romance novels that had less detail than this book.

So, because of the explicit portions of the book, I cannot recommend it to anyone. Not adult. Definitely NOT teenager.

For more reviews of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings visit 5 Minutes for Books.


Amy @ Hope Is the Word said...

I can't recommend the book, either, for the same reasons. I do think the book has literary merit because Angelou is such an amazing writer; however, the explicit nature of her descriptions removes it from the "you've got to read this" list for me.

Jennifer, Snapshot said...

Yeah, it was pretty explicit -- and I thought that what preceded the pregnancy -- her thoughts about her sexuality -- was really really odd and out of left field.

I do wonder if she was so cold in her detail on purpose -- to evoke that response -- but I have to agree with you that the style left me feeling unsettled, instead of mostly sympathetic.

Carrie said...

Yup - gotta say that although I wasn't aware of the explicit nature of the book, I just didn't have a good feeling about it. Seems like the feeling was justified. I'm very glad I didn't read this one and I appreciated your review.


Alicia said...

How sad that a book which had the potential to give readers insight into the pain and suffering of abuse in a sense alienates those who could show the most sympathy.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you whole-heartedly. Also, I think were vivid depictions of drug use. Alicia said it well.

I learned to avoid books and movies that give me images/memories that make me feel sick (specifically rape scenes). This reminds me to teach this idea to my teens.

I do think the detail was purposeful, and perhaps encouraged by the publisher. Sex sells, eh?

Thank you for an honest appraisal and appropriate recommendation (against) this book. I am not willing to pick-up any of her other books because of this. Barbara

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