Delia Sherman’s The Freedom Maze is a high middle grade speculative fiction novel that is simply fantastic. Basically, this novel tells the story of a privileged young white girl in 1960 Louisiana who is transported to 1860 where her ancestors mistake her for a slave. I sometimes make blanket statements about my reading habits, such as “I don’t really like sci-fi.” And then a totally awesome book comes along and welcomes me into the genre. Apparently, I need more speculative fiction in my life. I haven’t read very far into this subgenre, but when you have books like this one as well as Octavia Butler’s Kindred or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go leading you in it is hard to resist. I so value works that pull me out of my typical reading zone.
Sophie is thirteen years old in 1960 when she is pulled away from her home in New Orleans after the divorce of her parents. With her father in New York City with his new wife and her mother in school, Sophie is brought to spend the summer with her maiden aunt and bedridden grandmother on their sprawling estate. Sophie is not the idea of the genteel southern lady that her mother and grandmother believe she should be. She is almost constantly chastised for spending too much time in the sun. Being outdoors, climbing trees, and reading fairy tales are not proper activities for a young lady, but Sophie cannot resist the lure of the maze that runs through her grandmother’s back yard. Once she reaches the center of the maze a mysterious creature greets her, she makes a hasty wish for adventure, and finds herself in the year 1860 back when her family’s estate was a thriving plantation. Upon seeing her deeply tanned skin, curly hair, and disorderly clothing her ancestors assume she is a slave sent from a neighboring plantation.
Sophie’s reaction to being labelled “colored” is immediately met with more question than fear. “In 1960 white people were white people and colored people were colored and nobody had any trouble telling them apart.” The beauty of Sherman’s novel lies in this sentiment. The Freedom Maze is a novel about the complexity of heritage and race. And it is written on a middle grade level. What Sherman has done here is amazing. Writing about Sophie and her family in 1960 she creates an atmosphere of subtle and even casual racism (that will be familiar to today’s readers because it still very much exists). Then she has that juxtaposed brilliantly against the utter cruelty of Sophie’s family in 1860 and the new family that creates itself around her.
Growing up in a racist white household in the 1960s was rather idyllic. One could revel in the Old South while drinking sweet tea and reading Gone with the Wind. Sophie didn’t worry about the plight of “colored” people. She never had to; she never had to confront her assumptions about the lives of those different from her or her own privilege. Spending six months in 1860 exposes Sophie not only to the realities of racism in the slavery era south but to those that have lingered on 100 years later into her own time. Living among the slaves, seeing the truth of their lives, the depths of their feeling, and all the ways in which she absolutely related to them exposed her for the first time to just how similar she was not just to these individuals of a different race but even of a different time. The revelations about the truth of her heritage (not to divulge too many plots points, but Sophie’s dark skin and curly hair stem from somewhere) and her modern family’s willful blindness awaken in Sophie both a coming of age and a coming to compassion.
The Freedom Maze is a deeply layered and complex story, and it reads so easily and hits perfectly at the level for its intended audience. I am frankly amazed by Sherman’s abilities and cannot wait to read more of her work. I strongly urge you to read this important and wonderful book and share it with your kids/students/friends/the neighbors’ kids. Kids notice race, they notice difference, and they notice what is ‘other.’ It is so important for them to see stories that unite us in a common history that admits we are flawed but we are human and we are equal. We are the same in our difference.
"Multilayered, compassionate, and thought-provoking." -- Kirkus Reviews (starred review)