Summary: Beautiful writing, made better by her distinctive and haunting narration.
There can be no criticism about a book like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, not just because it is the writing is so beautiful, but because it is distinctive and ground breaking.
Angelou was 41 when I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and she had already been a popular singer with albums, an actress and playwright, a director and producer of a documentary, worked directly for both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, lived outside the US for several years and much more. Writing was a later career for Angelou, and she is probably best known today as a poet and writer, but she won a Tony for her acting and three Grammies.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first book of Angelou’s that I have read. It is an autobiography of her early life (until she was 17.) It is not strictly chronological, but story oriented. The stories are mostly in chronological, but there is some jumping around to accommodate different threads of a story. According to Wikipedia, there are at least some who want to label Angelou’s autobiographies as Autobiographical Fiction. After having read Sarah Arthur’s biography of Madeleine L’Engle, I basically assume that many authors are fictionalizing at least parts of their biography both for literary values and to smooth out the story.
I am also not at all surprised that I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has both been widely assigned in high school and college literature classes and the subject of campaigns to ban it. Angelou, frankly and clearly, describes her rape at the age of 8 by her mother’s then boyfriend. And then later describes her own exploration of sex which resulted in pregnancy and the birth of a son, three weeks after she graduated from high school at 17.
There are humorous stories, tragic stories and touching stories. After her parents divorce, she lived with her grandmother and uncle for much of her childhood in rural Arkansas. But also with her mother and father (separately) in St Louis, and then later with them both of them (individually) in California. She ran away from (or was pushed out) of her father’s home at 15 and was homeless for a while. She lied about her age and experience and became the first Black streetcar worker in San Fransisco.
In addition to the incredibleness of some of the stories, there is a sheer lyrical beauty to the writing that is only made better by listening to these in Angelou’s own voice. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first of what was eventually seven autobiographies. I will pick up more eventually, even though by reputation, this first is the best. I think only the last two of the autobiographies have audiobooks read by Angelou. So I will probably skip to A Song Flung up to Heaven and Mom and Me and Mom and then come back to read the rest.