Some books seem to make the rounds of all the blogs I follow. That’s what brought me to The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman. So many bloggers loved it, I couldn’t resist giving it a read. And I did enjoy it, largely for reasons that other people mentioned too…and I had a few reservations. More on those in a bit!
The book is about Sophie Fairchild Martineau, thirteen years old and living in the American South during the 1950s, just as the Civil Rights movement is starting to take shape. She’s bookish and awkward and doesn’t know how to be the proper, refined Southern lady her mother wants her to be. Her mother has never forgotten that their family used to be wealthy plantation owners, before the Civil War. Sophie is sent to spend the summer with her grandmother and aunt on what’s left of the family land, and wanders into the Maze, a labyrinth of hedges and paths. She meets a strange Creature, and makes a wish…only to find herself back in 1860, where her Fairchild ancestors assume that this tanned, unkempt child must be a slave.
There’s a lot to love in this book, starting with Sophie. I already loved her by the bottom of Page One. She reminds me of Sym from The White Darkness, so obviously a thoughtful, lovely girl who’s being told by the people around her that there’s something wrong with her. I love that Sophie likes to read–and she and I seem to have read all the same books! It’s so much fun to have a heroine who has read Edith Nesbit and Edward Eager, and knows how this sort of adventure is supposed to go. She knows the rules about wishes and magic creatures and native guides…but then nothing goes the way she expects.
I was so interested in Sophie and her family dynamics and life in the 1950s that I was almost disappointed when she went into the past. But the family dynamics and the life in the 1860s turned out to be very interesting too. The handling of the master/slave situation was fascinating. The Fairchilds (with the exception of a very nasty daughter) are not cruel people, but they are slaveowners. Through a combination of obliviousness, delegation of discipline, and a conviction of how the world is meant to be, they fully believe in their own goodness. And in a way they are “good masters”–but that doesn’t mean the slaves are happy. Neither are they desperately miserable in the day-to-day. Sherman walks a narrow line to avoid falling into stereotypes in either direction, while vividly portraying the culture of the white society, and the community of the slaves.
Sophie is mistaken for the daughter of one of the men in the family, who’s currently living in New Orleans. She has the Fairchild nose and tan skin from being in the sun, and so must be the offspring of a white master and his African slave–which makes her a slave too. This was one of the most intriguing and disturbing aspects of the story. I’ve certainly been familiar with the concept before, but I don’t think I had ever seen it brought to life. Everyone, white and black alike, believes that Sophie is related by blood to the white family, but she’s still classed and treated as a slave.
Sophie meets many wonderful people, particularly among the other slaves, and somehow those characters are growing on me more as I get farther out from the book. Strange! The book takes on the feel of historical fiction the longer Sophie spends in the past, and I liked learning more about life in the time, though to some extent this was a more academic than emotional interest.
As interesting as it all was, it also began to feel somewhat purposeless. It’s suggested, very clearly, that Sophie has been sent into the past for a reason, to do something. I had to wait most of the book for any hint of what that might be, and at times I felt as though I was waiting for the main story to get going. Sophie does ultimately end up helping another character in an important way, but the character wasn’t previously significant, and I didn’t have much reason to care. If that was the whole point of it all…I could appreciate it from a humanitarian standpoint, but it didn’t have much emotional resonance for me.
The other point, I’m sure, was for Sophie to grow, to find a new view on the world, and to find the strength to seize her own freedom. And I love that in theory…but in practice that aspect felt a bit rushed.
This book does many wonderful things–the way it does them doesn’t always feel quite as wonderful as they might have been. But don’t let that dissuade you! It is an enjoyable, fascinating book. It takes what feels like a very familiar setting, finds new angles, and is thoroughly thought-provoking!
Author’s Site: http://deliasherman.com