The Freedom Maze
by Delia Sherman
It’s rare for me to find a youth novel that combines good writing, thought provoking and dark subject matter, and a genuinely interesting story as well as Delia Sherman’s The Freedom Maze does. After The Magician’s Nephew and The Neverending Story it was refreshing to read a middle grade that had some teeth. Dealing with issues of both American slavery just before the Civil War and 1960’s expectations of womanhood, femininity, and growing pains in the American South, Sherman is unafraid to cast her protagonist into the fire, giving readers a deeply moving account of the struggles of marginalized peoples in two past eras.
The book opens with Sophie, the young, teenaged protagonist, in a car with her mother, driving through Louisiana one rainy day in May. They’re on their way to Sophie’s grandmother’s house, the ancestral home of the Fairchilds and once the site of a prosperous sugar plantation. The plantation is all in the past, now and most of the estate itself has gone to seed. To say that Sophie isn’t looking forward to the weeks she’s going to be spending with her family is an understatement, but her mother’s got a new job and her father’s run off to New York with another woman and it seems like no one’s got any time for Sophie anymore. Unless it’s to point out her faults and failings. Sophie is dumped without so much as a goodbye from her mother, into the care of her two aunts.
It doesn’t take long before Sophie is bored out of her mind with inside activities, and takes to exploring the ruins of the estate. Inside the overgrown garden maze on the property, Sophie encounters a strange talking creature, and tired of the boredom and semi-neglect from the adults in her life, she wishes it would send her on a storybook adventure.
This is most certainly a lesson in ‘careful what you wish for’.
She’s sent on an adventure all right, straight back in time one hundred years to 1860. Oh, she’s still on her ancestor’s property, except now it’s a fully operational sugar plantation, with slaves and everything! Unfortunately for Sophie, when she first interacts with her great-great-great-great kin, her skin has been so browned from playing out in the sun in 1960 that they mistake her for a slave! Fortunately her Fairchild nose gives her a slight reprieve, and after briefly convening, the 1860’s Fairchilds conclude that she is the daughter of the black sheep of the family, Robert, who’s ever had contrary notions in regard to colored people.
I should note here that I was intrigued from the start by Robert Fairchild and dearly wished he’d have more of a role in the story. He gets a bit of an epilogue at the end, but I still craved more. Ah well.
In a state of shock that she truly has been sent back in time one hundred years, Sophie dumbly agrees to the assumption that her father sent her to the plantation from New Orleans to be raised as a lady’s maid, before he ran off to France himself.
This is where Sophie’s troubles truly start.
The narrative exposes the bitter, ugly truth of slave life through Sophie’s experiences which I won’t summarize here for fear of not doing it justice. Like waking from a dream, over time Sophie begins to blur past and present and before long forgets she was ever from 1960 at all. However, much of her pluck and courage remains in her personality, which both creates trouble and solves it.
I’ll leave it to you to read it and find out what happens in the end. I wasn’t disappointed, and I hope you won’t be either.
One of the things I truly loved about this novel was the believability of the voice and the characters. In the afterword, Sherman admits that this book took eighteen years to write, and the care and attention to detail and historical accuracy are clear on every page.
As a middle grade book dealing with the highly charged and emotional subject matter of slavery, The Freedom Maze walks a fine line between white washing history and making the story inappropriate for the target age group. Fortunately, Sherman pulls off this delicate balance spectacularly, giving the reader a story that is both daring and safe, thought provoking and whimsical. Sherman accomplishes this with a great balance of the darker aspects of slavery and calmer scenes of childhood. This alternation between heavy and light at times made the book feel as though it was meandering away from its point, however the way everything ties up in the final third of the book makes it all fall into place in the end.
The Freedom Maze is one of the rare books which I feel isn’t limited to children, teens or adults. The writing, the characters and the story itself can appeal to any age. As a piece of historical fiction it is vividly, at times disturbingly accurate. As an MG fantasy it doesn’t break any molds, but it does add spice to the genre. As a coming of age story it is certain to strike a few cords in anyone’s soul, young or old. This is a book that can and should be read by everyone, and I highly recommend it.
The next book on my reading list is The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Nov/Dec, 2014.