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The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman


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.
As the blurb suggests, The Freedom Maze is a deeply political novel, and a not entirely comfortable one; Delia Sherman is dealing with the treatment of slaves and with the problems of racism in 1960s America through the eyes of a privileged white Southern girl from the 1960s, for whom now-unacceptable terms are seen as “polite”.

The Freedom Maze deals with issues of race and gender through a lens of speculative fiction, in the form of a time travel narrative; Sophie gets sucked into the past, into a hole created for her, where she is unexpectedly mistaken for a slave by her white ancestors – albeit, the slave offspring of the family – and treated as such. This allows Sherman to look at both modern (well, 1960s) white views of slavery – as having been an idyllic time where black people, by being enslaved, were “improved”; where there was somehow no abuse perpetrated – and compare Sophie’s preconceptions with the reality of her situation, which includes rape of slaves by whites, the intentional splitting up of families, the corporal punishment, and so on.

The Freedom Maze isn’t an unflinching exposé in the way Twelve Years A Slave is, or even as brutal as Django Unchained (the scene where a slave is ripped apart by dogs is an impressively understated one from Tarantino); it pulls its punches, somewhat, by having Sophie owned by “benevolent” masters. Sherman wrote this for a young adult audience, which perhaps explains why the book does pull those punches, especially in averting a rape scene and in avoiding the really ghastly elements of whipping, but at the same time it means The Freedom Maze ends up buying into some of the myths it is trying to attack.

The Freedom Maze also falls into a slight problem of ending up making slavery all about Sophie, the white privileged girl in the 1960s. This is a bildungsroman, but it is Sophie’s bildungsroman; Sherman is interested in the way that Sophie comes to understand her privilege and that means that we’re not following, say, a black slave, seeing their interiority, but a white girl with privilege who suddenly becomes a slave, a very different prospect. Sherman does avert this somewhat by having Sophie slowly forget her 20th century life and fall into believing that her 19th century past is the reality, but at the same time, this still isn’t total, and that she is used to save a black slave and get her to freedom is rather white-saviourish, even if she is at the time seen as black.

The novel isn’t just a tale about slavery, and about race and privilege, though; it’s also a story with characters in. The Freedom Maze does actually do really well on this front, and Sherman’s skill at writing believable, different, unique characters with their own individuality is really obvious; every character who appears has a different feeling to them, whether it be caustic or gentle, brutish or kind, selfish or generous. Characters are defined very much by their relationships to others, which creates an interesting situation for Sophie as she is thrust into the past; she has to develop new relationships in order to develop a new sense of selfhood, and Sherman is fascinating on how one’s associates influences one’s self-definition.

She also has an excellent prose style; The Freedom Maze draws the reader in and through the novel with the consistent simplicity of its prose, stripped down to what it needs to be rather than effusive, but also avoiding excessive technicality. The language isn’t so much simple as precise, or exact; the prose flows through the novel, moving the plot along as it does, carrying the feel of the novel in its waxing and waning, bringing us into the mind of Sophie. The way each character speaks reflects their specific time and place, their education and personality; but Sherman doesn’t fall into bad dialect or frustrating attempts to render accents phonetically, instead capturing the feel of speech rather than its literal letter-by-letter rendition onto the page, a difficult skill but a vital one in a novel like this.

In the end, while The Freedom Maze does have some problems, Sherman has written a story that does go some way to expose the evils of American slavery and to highlight the nature of white privilege; and she has created a readable and enjoyable one, at that.

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