243. The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman
Author: Delia Sherman
Publisher: Big Mouth House, an imprint of Small Beer Press
Publication Date: 22 November, 2011
The Freedom Maze for purchase on The Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide
Review copy provided by the publisher via the LibraryThing EarlyReviewers program.
Friends, I’ve been looking forward to THE FREEDOM MAZE for simply ages. I added it to my wishlist shortly after THE FALL OF THE KINGS, Sherman’s 2002 collaboration with Ellen Kushner, convinced me to read everything she’d ever written. The wait was long--this book took Sherman eighteen years to write--but worthwhile.
The story follows Sophie, a young girl who’s been banished to her family’s ancestral plantation for the summer of 1960. Sophie’s unhappy about the move; not only is she still upset about her parents’ recent divorce, but she feels rejected by her mother and ill-used by her tyrannical grandmother. When she meets a strange creature straight out of one of the children’s fantasies she loves so much, she jumps at the chance to wish for a true family and friends who love her.
The creature complies by sending her back to 1860--where tanned, curly-haired Sophie is mistaken for the biracial illegitimate child of the family’s New Orleanian son, and is promptly enslaved by her many-times great grandmother.
The resulting story is slow, careful, and absolutely worth the time you’ll take with it. Sherman gradually develops both Sophie’s character and the family dynamic with which she lives. We spend a fair amount of time in Sophie’s present before we return to the past, a narrative choice that does slow the story down, yet makes the contrast all the stronger when she meets her ancestors and their slaves.
Her life in the past is much better than what many slaves endured, but that’s not to say it isn’t horrific. Her family no longer merely disregards her; they believe they own her and can dictate her every action. She is robbed of her autonomy. She can’t even reference her parents, as everyone who overhears her assumes she’s taking liberties in speaking of her white, wealthy father.
Sophie doesn’t make a fuss at first because she believes her stay in the past will only last a couple of weeks; however, this soon becomes her life in every sense. She’s so fully immersed in her slave’s role that she acquires false memories of her early life in 1850s New Orleans. She begins to doubt she was ever anything but someone’s property.
But even as her biological family treats her as a possession, she makes new connections among her fellow slaves. The bonds she forms with the large family that all but adopts her are stronger than those she shares with with her parents, aunt or grandmother back in 1960. Her close connection to them fulfills her wish and shows her the lie behind everything her birth family says about people of colour. She learns to judge people based on how they act, not what they look like.
She also learns that her white family and their slaves are far more entwined than her mother would have her believe. Sherman doesn’t go into great detail, since this is a book for young readers, but Sophie becomes aware of the horrific reality of slave rape, and of the many, many white fathers who refused to acknowledge their biracial children, let alone free them. It's sobering stuff, even for readers already well acquainted with these historical truths.
On a much lighter note, both adults and widely-read children will appreciate the many ties THE FREEDOM MAZE has to earlier works of children’s literature. There are clear parallels here with E. Nesbit’s FIVE CHILDREN AND IT, most notably between Sophie's creature and the Psammead, and I’m sure there are even more ties to THE TIME GARDEN by Edward Eager, which Sophie loves and often references. These elements, combined with Sherman’s prose style, render the book suitable for either young adults or mature members of the middle grade set. Big Mouth House states that their books are appropriate for readers ten or older, and I think that's fair.
This is quieter book, to be sure, but one not to be missed. I was almost at the end before I realized how deeply involved I'd become, and how strongly I felt for Sophie and her adopted family. It’s one of those books that crashes into you, all at once. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
4 stars - loved it
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