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The protagonist of the novel is Maya. As a young child, she is sent to live with her grandmother because her parents are getting a divorce. Since she does not hear from her mother or father for a long time, she thinks they are dead. When they reappear in her life,
she does not bond with them. As a result, through most of her childhood and youth, she never feels like she belongs to anyone or anything. Her emotional isolation is intensified by the fact that she is raped by her mother’s boyfriend at the age of eight.
As a coming-of-age story, Maya’s antagonist is the difficulty of growing up, which is complicated by being abandoned by her parents, by being a black female in wartime America, and by being raped at the age of eight.
The climax of the story occurs when Maya runs away from home and learns that she is control of her own life. Fortunately, she makes the wise decision to return to her mother in San Francisco rather than continuing her communal existence amongst the runaways in the junkyard. She also wisely returns to high school and finishes, even though Vivian encourages her to quit and even though she is eight months pregnant at the time of graduation. Her coming-of-age reaches another peak when she questions her sexuality and seeks to overcome what she fears is lesbianism. She invites a neighborhood boy to have sex with her, which leads to pregnancy. The birth of her son turns out to be the highpoint of her life.
The story ends as a comedy. Despite all the things going against her, Maya matures, graduates from high school, has a healthy son, and delights in motherhood, which makes her feel that she truly belongs and is needed for the first time in her life.