Author: Delia Sherman
Genre: Historical, SF, Young Adult, PoC
Publisher: Small Beer Press
Publication date: November 22nd 2011
Hardcover: 258 pages
Set against the burgeoning Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and then just before the outbreak of the Civil War, The Freedom Maze explores both political and personal liberation, and how the two intertwine.
In 1960, thirteen-year-old Sophie isn’t happy about spending summer at her grandmother’s old house in the Bayou. But the house has a maze Sophie can’t resist exploring once she finds it has a secretive and playful inhabitant.
When Sophie, bored and lonely, makes an impulsive wish inspired by her reading, hoping for a fantasy adventure of her own, she slips one hundred years into the past, to the year 1860. On her arrival she makes her way, bedraggled and tanned, to what will one day be her grandmother’s house, where she is at once mistaken for a slave.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: Bought
Why did I read this book: N.K. Jemisin raved about the book in her Smugglivus Post and I bought it as soon as I read her post. It’s been sitting in my Kindle ever since but then last week, the book was nominated for a
NebulaAndre Norton Award, and I just knew the time had come to read it.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when I realised The Freedom Maze was something special. I felt its impact from the very start: I had barely started it and already had problems falling asleep because I kept thinking about what was happening to the protagonist and where the story might go. This is a book that works on every single level I can think of: from a storytelling point of view, as a coming of age tale, as a Speculative Fiction story, as a Historical novel, as a social and cultural examination of racial identity and much more. It’s a multifaceted story that is deeply affecting, gripping, thought-provoking and as close to a perfect novel as it can be. I hope I can do it justice. One thing before I proceed any further though: I do spoil a few minor plot points, but since this is not a book about plot, this shouldn’t detract at all from your enjoyment of the novel.
The Freedom Maze follows 13 year old Sophie in the 1960s in Louisiana as she spends the summer with her aunt and grandmother at the Oak Cottage, the old family home of the grand Fairchild family from back in the “good old days”. Sophie has been left behind by her mother who is now pursuing a new career after divorcing Sophie’s father. She barely hears from her father –now living in NY with a new wife – and her relationship with her mother is fraught with tension. She constantly bemoans Sophie’s behaviour as unladylike, complains about the state of her unruly hair, about her clothes, about her time spent reading books. It’s been like this forever and Sophie has developed strategies available to her in dealing with her mother – they involve a lot of shutting up and a lot of appeasing.
In any case, the summer is in full swing and Sophie is bored, sick of being left behind by everybody she knows and there is only so much sunbathing, reading and fishing one can do. And then there is the old family maze which Sophie is attracted to – a maze in a state of disrepair, haunted by the ghosts of old Fairchilds. It’s also where she first comes across a trickster spirit that constantly teases Sophie and who obliges when she wishes she could have a grand old adventure just like the ones she reads in the books she loves. He sends her back 100 years in the past to her own family’s plantation when to her dismay – because of her darker skin, because of her hair – she is taken for a bastard child of one of the sons and as a slave. Because of her close ties with the family, she becomes a house slave, working for her “grandmother” – the Old Missy. At first, Sophie takes it all as an adventure but her trip to the past do not follow the script she expected it to and things get really serious, really fast. And Creature will not take her back until she’s done what she is supposed to do.
From a plotting perspective Sophie’s journey to the past is perhaps the basic storyline of the novel and as such it is a tale of survival: first as a house slave, then as a hand in the sugar cane plantation. But as I said before, The Freedom Maze works on many levels, and this basic storyline expands to encompass a myriad of themes.
At first, Sophie sees her trip as an adventure and has an almost detached relationship with the story she is living but soon she realises there is no easy way out and she has no idea when she is going to back to her own time. The most fascinating thing is how the story subverts traditional time-travel stories: she is not a casual observer and she is not a saviour (although she does help one person in distress) and she is certainly not welcomed. Instead, she is affected by it but not from a perspective of a “white person who comes to learn about slavery” either because as it turns out, Sophie and her family in 1960 are not as white as they like to believe they are. She spends six months in the past and those six months are worth an entire life – the more time she is there, the more she forgets about her life in 1960, the more she starts to believe she is Sophie-the-slave and embraces her own tell-tale story of being the bastard child of Robert Fairchild. When she does, eventually, return to her own time, the physical consequences of her life in 1860 are not erased magically by leaving behind only memories. She goes back a changed girl and it shows: it’s been half an hour in 1960 but she has aged. To the point where she has no choice but to tell her aunt what happened.
This fits in the coming of age theme of the novel. Sophie starts out as a naïve young girl who has to grow up fast and with no choice: her life now mirrors those of the slaves she comes in contact with. Her coming of age is both a matter of identity and a matter of history and those are brilliantly interwoven in the narrative. Her family in 1960 is a proud white family who celebrate their past as the “good old days”. They identify themselves as good people and yet their discourse is horribly, inherently, casually racist. Her mother has removed her from her school once it became a mixed race school and is constantly telling her not to speak with Black men because they are dangerous and dirty. Despite this, there is a brilliant acknowledgment of how complex people are. In that sense, it is also possible to address gender issues here as the mother is trying to find her own way in a world that despises working, divorced women. There is a generational tension between Sophie and her mother but also between the latter and her own mother.
The aunt is the figure Sophie can count on the most and who really loves her, except when she becomes silent when at one point they find a paper cut from 1860 that refers to Sophie as a slave who can “pass as white”. 100 years before that, everybody hails Dr Charles Fairchild, the owner of the plantation as a benevolent, firm yet kind figure. He even has a hospital for infirm slaves and they are tended to with care. But that is because they are worth money, and one has to tend to their property well. When his daughter mistreats a slave, he gives her a lecture about how she would never whip a dog or a horse when they misbehave. The slaves are portrayed in the very same complex manner: there are those who accept their position more easily than others; there is also the complex, difficult dynamic and hierarchy between house-slaves and plantation-slaves; there are good people, bad people, happy or unhappy and they all have voices. One of the best, most impacting quotes from the novel comes from a slave when talking about their “benevolent” owner:
Africa spoke from the kitchen door. “You both wrong. […] There ain’t no such thing as a good mistress, on account of a mistress ain’t a good thing to be. Think on it, Mammy. Old Missy maybe taught you to read and write and speak as white as her own children. But she ain’t set you free.”
This is a story that challenges stereotypes at every turn with astute, subtle observations. It portrays racial identity and divide in 1860 and in 1960 and in doing so, makes one wonder about race and identity right NOW. Sophie encapsulates this when, at both ends of the book, she reacts differently to her family’s observations – in the end, she has been altered by her experience in positive ways.
Because of this, the story is still fundamentally a fairytale – although a freaking gut-wrenching one. It is obviously a time-travel story and one that incorporates elements of traditional African beliefs beautifully 1.
I also mentioned several themes and I think I managed to somehow do so in a clinical, cold way when there isn’t anything even remotely cold about the way I reacted to the story. My heart went to Sophie’s family (not the Fairchilds though, but her adopted family, the one that took care of her) and their plight. When Sophie comes back to 1960 and has no way of knowing what happened to them, my heart broke alongside hers with sheer sadness.
Do you know what is surprising? I read this on my Kindle and it wasn’t until I was setting up this post that I realised that the book is less than 300 pages long. Less than 300 pages long and it manages to accomplish so much in those pages.
There are books you just know will stay with you forever. This is one of them.
Notable Quotes/ Parts:
Sophie Martineau looked out the window of her mother’s 1954 Ford station wagon and watched her life slide behind her into the past.
It was raining. It rained a lot in May in Louisiana, but Sophie couldn’t help feeling this rain was personal. It was bad enough to be saying good-bye to her friends and her school and the house she’d grown up in to spend the summer stuck out in the bayou with Grandmama and Aunt Enid, knowing she’d be coming back to a different neighborhood and a different school in the fall. Doing it in the rain was just rubbing her nose in it.
They drove past her best friend Diana Roget’s house. In the wet, the big stucco house was grim and uninviting—just like Mrs. Roget after Papa up and moved to New York. Once the divorce was final, she hadn’t even allowed Diana to come over any more, and Sophie wasn’t invited to Galveston as she had been every summer since third grade.
It was like Mrs.Roget thought divorce was catching, like cooties. Although she’d denied it, Sophie suspected Diana thought so, too
Rating: 10 – Perfect
Reading Next: The Sunbird by Elizabeth Wein
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- On a personal note: I was surprised to see mention of Orixas – which are entities from the Yoruba religious system -in the story. You see, I am from Brazil and our history and growth is also unfortunately connected with African slavery: it’s estimated that over 3,000,000 slaves were sent to Brazil and slavery was not abolished until 1888. One of the main religions practices in Rio de Janeiro, (where I am from) is called Umbanda, a blend of African religions with Catholicism and Kardecism. This is the religion of my family and I grew up hearing about Legba (or Exu) and Yemanja. I was surprised because I – stupidly – never thought there could be connections between the US and Brazil on that front ↩