Delia Sherman – The Freedom Maze

deliasherman-thefreedommazeAMERICA, 1960: thirteen-year old Sophie is frustrated. Her mother has sent her to spend summer with Grandmama on their family’s old estate in sweltering southern Louisiana. Bored, lonely and far too hot, Sophie starts exploring. When she discovers an overgrown maze, she makes her way inside. Lost among its pathways she finds a magical creature who promises her the adventure of a lifetime . . .

AMERICA, 1860: Sophie is transported a hundred years into the past to the Oak River plantation in its heyday. Her own ancestors mistake her for a slave girl and set her to work alongside the hundreds of other slaves who tend to the fields, the house, and the white family’s every whim. As the reality of slave life becomes horribly clear, Sophie starts to wonder how long she’ll survive; and how – or if – she will ever get back home.

The Freedom Maze is a very special novel about slavery, survival and the many paths to freedom.

As I had heard and read a lot of praise for Delia Sherman’s The Freedom Maze, I was excited to receive a review copy for the UK edition. And I was in no way disappointed by the story. The Freedom Maze was every bit as magical as I’d expected. This novel packs a lot in a slim package and I hope I can do it justice. 

Before talking about the obvious themes of the book and the historical settings, I want to examine its speculative elements. The Freedom Maze is a time travel story, but one powered by magic not technology. Time travellers are usually supposed to only observe, to prevent them from fundamentally changing things and creating a temporal paradox. Yet Sophie takes an active part in the past. She doesn’t cause earth-shattering changes to history, but the small-scale changes she effects, are profound for those they impact. Apart from the time travel element, there is another speculative element to the narrative. There are spirits included in the book: the trickster Creature, the loa Papa Legba, and the Orisha Yemaya. All three seem connected to religious beliefs of those brought to the Americas on slave ships. I say seem, because the true nature of Creature isn’t truly revealed in the book. Their presence in the narrative isn’t huge, especially that of Papa Legba and Yemaya, but it is key to the story.

The two time lines both contain racial themes. Where in 1860 slavery has not yet been abolished, in Sophie’s 1960 it may have been forbidden, but in general attitudes haven’t become much better in this later period. It is interesting to compare these eras’ attitudes to today. We might like to think we’ve progressed beyond this, but there is plenty of evidence  that this isn’t true. As such, this book would make for a wonderful book to read together with your young teen. It provides a starting point to talk about the horrific practices of slavery and about racism, both past and present.

The Freedom Maze tackles not just racism, but sexism as well. This is mostly addressed in the 1960s time line, where the changing mores of that time come into full play. Sophie’s parents have been divorced and her mother has chosen to go to work, instead of finding a new husband to provide for her and Sophie. Her bid for financial independence is frowned upon by her elder female relatives and seems to equate to her being a loose woman with lax morals. There is a serious generational divide at play here – between Sophie’s mum and her own mother, but between Sophie’s mum and Sophie herself as well. Even if she’s turning into a single, working mum, she still wants Sophie to be a well-mannered, perfect little lady, not the bookish, free spirit Sophie actually is.

The characters are complex on both sides of the racial divide. In 1960, slavery may have been abolished, but Sophie’s housekeeper is still black and her mother has warned away from black men because they are dangerous, not because men are dangerous, but because they are black. This attitude is re-enforced by Sophie’s grandmother, who is an unlikeable old biddy and is very much racist. Yet Sophie herself sees things differently and her experiences in 1860 only solidify her conviction that all people should be treated equal. In the 1860 timeline, Sherman lets Sophie realise that even a benign master is still a master and no one should own another. Old Missy, into whose service Sophie is put as a lady’s maid, has a kind heart, but ultimately still prefers to believe New Missy over Sophie, even when Sophie is telling the truth. Sherman shows that the life of a house slave may have been less physically taxing, it was still hard and dangerous and whatever form slavery takes, it is still abhorrent.

The Freedom Maze was a wonderful book and I haven’t even managed to touch on half of its talking points and exquisite characters. Suffice it to say, The Freedom Maze is a brilliant story in and of itself. It’s a time travel adventure with a wonderfully impulsive protagonist in Sophie, who you can’t help but fall in love with. However, I think The Freedom Maze is also a book that can serve as a wonder teaching aide and as such should be of interest to both teachers and school librarians.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.