Thursday, April 11, 2013

Book Review: Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou

I first heard about Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou from an interview at the back of Time Magazine called "10 Questions." I'd just finished an autobiography by Valerie Harper, I read something similiar before that, and I wasn't in the market for another memoir. However, after reading those ten simple questions in Time, I decided to buy the Kindle version of Mom & Me & Mom anyway.

The book begins with the earliest part of Angelou's life and how she and her brother, Bailey, had been sent to live with their maternal grandmother. Their mother, Vivian Baxter, thought it would be a better environment for them. As a result, when it was time for them to leave the racially charged south as young adults a few years later and return to San Francisco to live with Vivian again, both Maya and Bailey held reservations...and a certain amount of resentment...toward Vivian for sending them away in the first place.

These strong emotions follow the move back to San Francisco. And in this book Maya Angelou discusses the difficulties Vivian Baxter had in trying to win the trust...and respect...of her two children. Bailey seemed to take it better, where Maya missed her grandmother and didn't even want to call Vivian "Mother." It's all explained well, and it portrays Vivian as a strong, determined woman, with an intrinsic brand of wisdom her daughter, Maya, seems to have inherited from her. And while I was reading I kept wondering why I didn't dislike this woman, Vivian, who had sent her two children away to live with their grandmother more than I did, and I think that's because this story is told in a way that shows no one is perfect and we all do the best with what we have. Vivian Baxter did this with her head held high, diamonds in her ears, and a pistol in her purse.

At one point in the book, Angelou discusses being raped at a very young age. Of course I'd read about this before and it wasn't a big surprise. But there are surprises in the book, and things I didn't know about Angelou I won't give away now as spoilers for those who have not read it yet. In a general sense, as the book moves forward and we see Maya learning more about Vivian Baxter, each experience Maya has is centered around Vivian's grand style, her pragmatism, and her ability to love as deeply as a mother can love.

Toward the middle of the book, we see Maya growing into a woman, and dealing with a few of the realities we all face during those early years. Again, no spoilers, however, I found myself liking Vivian Baxter even more during several events that could have altered the course of Maya Angelou's entire life if it had not been for Vivian's Baxter's support. And yet, at the same time, there was nothing simple about Vivian Baxter at all. And although Angelou never really gets into this in any details, Vivian had a full life of her own, and was loved by both men and women. But never once controlled by anyone.

One of the things I've always enjoyed about Maya Angelou's books is her ability to wave that proverbial magic wand and turn a pumpkin into a golden carriage, so to speak. She takes ordinary situations, and comments, and turns them into exercises in wisdom in a way that's so poetic you wind up rereading them as they come up in the book. There's one section in the book where Maya is dealing with a new career, being a single mother, and trying to be as independent as possible given her circumstances. She's overwhelmed to the point of absolute panic, and it's as frightening to read as it must have been to go through at the time. Yet in the end, she leaves us with one simple, basic word that seems to make everything okay again: gratitude.

Although the difficulties of growing up African American during a period when racial tensions were high, to put it mildly, did come up, I never once found this book focusing on race. It's mentioned on occasion, and then it's time to move forward. At one point Angelou did mention how difficult it was to be a single mother. She was working two jobs at that time, and balancing what little time she did have with her son. It all came to a climax after she'd read an article in a magazine while sitting in a doctor's office one day. Angelou's son had serious allergies and the article talked about how allergies subside when the children get more attention. This infuriated her for several reasons, mostly because she didn't have the luxury of spending more time with her son. And once again, Vivian Baxter came to her side, gave her support, and turned things around with a few simple words and a very generous loan.

I would recommend this book to anyone without thinking twice. I'm giving it five stars because there's no place to click where I can give it ten. It's the kind of book that would be a great read if you have the time to do in one sitting. And if you don't, I suggest reading it before you go to sleep at night because it's the kind of book that makes you feel better about yourself when you wake up in the morning.

If you don't believe me, I suggest you read the free excerpt on Amazon before you go to bed tonight, which is what I did before I made the purchase. You can get there from here.  

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