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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou

This is a good book, but I am not in love. It is a memoir of the author’s childhood and adolescence in the 1930s and 40s, in the segregated South and later in California. It is certainly a well-written book, with vividly drawn scenes – the reader must accept a certain amount of creative license, as the book is often novelistic in its dialogue and scene-setting, but that’s easy to accept because it is skillfully done. The characterization is strong too; in some memoirs, the supporting cast is flat and receives little attention, but here they are brought to life as characters in a good novel would be. And it is an interesting book, as Angelou had an eventful childhood and so a lot of material to work with. Finally, while it is not the focus of the book, she does deal with very sensitive topics (like child sexual abuse) in a way that is quite brave, especially given that this was published in 1969.


So what didn’t I love? For one, the book is episodic, sometimes more like a collection of short stories than a single narrative; it can feel jumpy, and as chapter beginnings are often slow, I had a hard time getting back into it when Angelou changed topics between chapters. (A small detail, but I think this was exacerbated by not beginning new chapters on a new page, which leads my brain to expect more continuity.) Also, some of the episodes, particularly from her teenage years, feel underdeveloped – this book could have been much longer; no wonder the author wrote several more autobiographical volumes – and left me a little confused about the reason for her actions. It could be that from the vantage of several decades later, Angelou herself didn’t remember why she did some of these things, but the latter part of the book feels like looking in from the outside more than I generally expect from a memoir.


Overall, my thoughts on this one are more positive than negative. I wouldn’t go around recommending this to every reader I meet, but I would encourage anyone who’s interested to give it a try.