Author: Delia Sherman
Narrator: Robin Miles
Publication Date: 9/25/12
Publisher: Listening Library
Blurb(GR): 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 the 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 mischievious inhabitant.
When Sophie, bored and lonely, makes an impulsive wish, she slips back one hundred years into the past, to the year 1860. She hopes for a fantasy book adventure with herself as the heroine. Instead, she gets a real adventure in the race-haunted world of her family’s Louisiana sugar plantation in 1860, where she is mistaken for a slave. President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation is still two years in the future. The Thirteen Amendment—abolishing and prohibiting slavery—will not be not passed until April 1864.
Muddy and bedraggled, Sophie obviously isn’t a young lady of good breeding. She must therefore be a slave. And she is.
According to an interview with Delia Sherman at the end of this audiobook, it took eighteen years, twenty-seven drafts, countless hours of research, and a whole bunch of informed beta readers to complete this book – and it shows. If you’re looking for historical fiction that’s been thoroughly researched and very well done, this is an excellent choice. And the best part is that this was written for children.
I know that I’ve talked about this before, but it bears repeating: children deserve great books too. I think sometimes writers approach the children’s or young adult genre with the attitude of, “Oh, they’re just kid’s books…” as if somehow being young means being able to see past flat characters, gaping plot holes, and overly simplistic stories. Anyone who has any dealings with the young can tell you that this is categorically untrue. My kids can easily differentiate between a good book and a bad book (or worse, a condescending book). So it really impresses me when an author has clearly gone the extra mile (and then some) for children.
At the beginning of this book, Sophie is a very late-blooming thirteen years old. It’s 1960, and much to her traditional grandmother’s disapproval, her parents are getting a divorce and her mother has decided to go back to school. Sophie’s mother struggles to fit between her very traditional upbringing and what she’s had to do (and worse…enjoyed doing) to survive. She’s strict and overly critical of just about everything – especially Sophie. Sophie’s father has disappeared to New York to live a new life that doesn’t include anything about his old one. When Sophie’s mother foists her off on her grandmother and aunt to spend the summer holidays at the family’s ancestral home, Sophie wishes for an escape. She wishes to go on a marvelous, grand adventure just like her favorite fantasy stories. She wishes to finally have a close family and friends. Things get interesting when a very tricky spirit decides to grant her wish – by sending Sophie back into the past, where her ancestral family takes one look at her and assumes she’s a slave.
Delia Sherman impressed me greatly by going the extra mile in researching this book, but she impressed me even more by presenting such a dark, difficult subject (human slavery) so honestly. I know that it can be difficult to navigate these topics with children, but I think it becomes even more important not to resort to oversimplification when relating the uglier aspects of our history to them. Delia Sherman is one of the few authors I know about who does it perfectly. She doesn’t sanitize slavery at all. She also doesn’t sensationalize the (already horrifying on its own) cruel treatment that most slaves received. Nor does she pretend that these cruelties didn’t exist. Instead, she relates the details of slavery in layers: the kids might only pick up on the surface ideas (which are still related with stark honesty), but the adults will be able to see much more. In fact, to an adult who is perhaps already seeing beneath those surface layers, Sophie’s initial perspective might feel a bit too simplistic. However, through the course of this story, Sophie gains a huge amount of perspective. Through Sophie’s eyes, we get to experience her initial ignorance about slavery give way slowly, by degrees – a changing perspective which will (I think) encourage child readers to follow in her footsteps down through the surface layers and into the deeper, darker themes.
Sophie's changing perspective even encouraged me to think about slavery in ways that I'd never fully considered. For example, I initially had some trouble buying into the idea that Sophie’s family could mistake a Caucasian girl (with a tan) for a slave. Once I began to enjoy the story, I mostly just decided to let my skepticism about Sophie’s appearance go – I mean, this is a middle grade fantasy after all, and a little suspension of disbelief is pretty much par for the course. Or so I thought. At the end of this audiobook, Delia Sherman reveals that part of her inspiration for this story was an advertisement she found in a historical archive for a runaway slave – a girl who “had blonde hair and blue eyes” and “could pass for white.” It’s not like I didn’t know that Thomas Jefferson had (and still has) African American descendants, or that the word “quadroon” used to be a thing. I guess I just never gave a ton of thought to how complicated that must have been - living in a system where parents, children, and grandchildren were sometimes separated by this arbitrary line that labeled one human and one animal. Were the American plantation owners really so blind to the fact that these people – who were living side by side with them, raising them as children, and maybe even related to them genetically – were actually people? Delia Sherman doesn’t shy away from investigating these questions either and the resulting view of a system that has blinded so many for so long is utterly compelling. This is a fantastic audiobook that I recommend for children and the adults in their lives. I think this would be an excellent introduction to American slavery for any middle school classroom.
Perfect Musical Pairing
Aretha Franklin - A Change Is Gonna Come (Sam Cooke cover)