Book Review: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

written by Hearth Board Member, Nina Earley

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou is a book I had been meaning to read for a long time. It’s easy to put off, I think I might have been worried that I wouldn’t be able to relate to the story and characters, it is, after all, set in the south in the 1930s, told from the eyes of a young black girl. (I grew up in the 1990s in Europe, and have been living in New England for several years now, I don’t know much about Arkansas, and have never even visited). And yet, nearly 100 years after it takes place, this story is just as relevant as the year it was written.

My apprehension was cleared when I read Oprah Winfrey’s introduction (though I don’t often feel like I can relate to Oprah, either). She called out one of Angelou’s mantras, which appears throughout this story, and much of her other writing: “We are more alike than we are unalike!” This is a statement I wholeheartedly believe in and I think it is paramount to our understanding of and participation in the current global climate.

“To be left alone on the tightrope of youthful unknowing is to experience the excruciating beauty of full freedom and the threat of eternal indecision. Few, if any, survive their teens. Most surrender to the vague but murderous pressure of adult conformity. It becomes easier to die and avoid conflicts than to maintain a constant battle with the superior forces of maturity.”

Angelou has a masterful command of language, and this story is filled with insights, advice, and observation, all from her point of view, all applicable to so many of us. I have struggled with writing this summary, knowing my words are inadequate substitutes for hers, and ultimately, all I want to say is everyone should read this book. So in lieu of a full summary, here is another favorite excerpt, and a few questions I am looking forward to discussing during our book club meeting this month.

“I wouldn’t miss Mrs. Flowers, for she had given me her secret word which called forth a djinn who was to serve me all my life: books.”

  • Is there a part of this story that you related to that caught you off-guard? A moment you hadn’t expected?
  • How can we, as adults in Massachusetts, a safe and liberal place, make sure we don’t “surrender to the vague but murderous pressure of adult conformity”?

While I don’t believe that every conversation should be political, and I actually think it’s important right now to have things in our lives that are far removed from politics, it’s important to have certain conversations and to make them as productive as possible. I think this quote is a good starting point:

“Mother whispered, ‘See, you don’t have to think about doing the right thing. If you’re for the right thing, then you do it without thinking.’”

Do you think this is true? How is or isn’t this apparent in your life now? Let us know at the Hearth Book Club discussion of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings on February 22!


Join the Hearth Community at 7:00 pm on Wednesday, February 22 at Arts at the Armory to discuss I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings with the Hearth Book Club.

Support your local bookstore by buying your copy at Porter Square Books!

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