The Freedom Maze
- By Delia Sherman
- 272 pp.
- Reviewed by Kelly Fiore
- June 5, 2014
A time-traveling teen journeys back to 1860 and learns to live on her own terms.
Often today adventure books for young adults have defaulted to being something swashbuckling or apocalyptic. However, The Freedom Maze, a young adult novel by Delia Sherman, introduces — or reintroduces — today’s teen reader to a different sense of the word “adventure,” a kind of exploration that delves into our country’s personal and troubled history.
The Freedom Maze begins in the summer of 1960. Sophie, the 13-year-old daughter of divorced parents, has gone to live with her grandmother and aunt while her mother goes back to college and her father immerses himself in his new marriage. Spending time at her family’s Louisiana plantation isn’t an immediate escape for Sophie, who feels intense pressure to please her mother while reconciling the loss of her father to a new wife and a new life.
However, upon encountering a mysterious creature, Sophie makes a wish — and it’s this wish that inadvertently catapults our protagonist, and the reader, into the “glory days” of the southern plantation. Sophie is transported back to 1860 and, because she looks less like a Southern Belle than most of the Caucasian girls of that time period she is mistaken for a slave.
While she’s effectively escaped her reality, Sophie now faces a far more physically grueling and, in many ways, more spirit-breaking existence as a house slave, and then as a field slave working the sugarcane crop. By going through this struggle and experiencing a reality that, to Sherman’s credit, isn’t sugar-coated or glamorized, Sophie returns to 1960 a changed girl. At 13, she seems less like a child than she did before. Because her trip back in time was a literal 30 minutes (but felt to her like months), no one is aware of this startling transformation but Sophie herself.
Sherman makes tough choices in this book — having characters, like Sophie’s mother, who are clearly racist requires a reader to go back in time themselves to attempt to have any understanding for a perspective that has long been considered wrong in society. Juxtaposing the grandmother’s wistfulness for the past and Sophie’s actual experience of the past allows readers — both adult and child — to learn a lesson that is difficult to swallow: Sometimes, our memories are more fantastic, more glossy, and desirable than the reality ever was.
In some ways, Sherman’s The Freedom Maze echoes the themes and strengths of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, particularly in how we are asked to relate to and accept a society of people who are flawed in their beliefs, but are generally good people. By watching Sophie stand up for herself and her opinions to a mother, and a society, that hasn’t yet made that leap, is as satisfying as watching Skeeter Phelan’s transformation in Stockett’s book. Like Skeeter, a college graduate who feels out of place in the white-washed society of Jackson, Mississippi, Sophie is underestimated and, therefore, one of the most potent and powerful forces in the novel. As has been said many times over, everyone loves an underdog.
It’s rare to find a book like this one that succeeds in attacking difficult topics with such a graceful and intuitive approach. This book is a wonderful segue from a watered-down child’s version of history into a more genuine and realistic account of life during slavery and civil rights. In general, the whole narrative is a beautiful exploration of how the past that lives in one’s memory is often less about reality and more about what we idealize or find most desirable. While there is a place for both in the world, watching Sophie’s transformation gives young adult readers the opportunity to observe and consider how the events occurring before their birth can, in fact, shape who they are at present.
Kelly Fiore is the author of Taste Test (Bloomsbury), Just Like the Movies (Bloomsbury), and the forthcoming The People Vs. Cecelia Price (HarperTeen.) She teaches college composition and lives in Maryland with her husband and son. You can find her at www.kellyfiorewrites.com or on Twitter at @kellyannfiore.