Delia Sherman's stunning 'The Freedom Maze'

I'm frequently playing catch-up with my reading habits – what book lover isn't? But once in a while, despite my best intentions, my honest desire to read ahead, my particular love for a publisher that I represent, I lose track of a book during the season in which I'm selling it and I never get to read a book all the way through, even though I really, really want to.

Delia Sherman's The Freedom Maze has been one of those books. Since it was first published back in 2011, I've been meaning to return to it and find out exactly why it got such great reviews, why it won the awards it won, and to me, find out what Delia Sherman can do in long form. I've only ever read Delia Sherman's short stories before. I'm a fan, but I've never read one of her novels.

After I learned that Small Beer Press, her publisher for the hardcover of The Freedom Maze, had recently sold the paperback rights to Candlewick Press for the Spring 2014 season, I saw that my chance was at hand. I could not only catch up on one of the books I'd long meant to read, but I could get ahead of the reading for NEXT season at the same time!

So, what's it all about? In May 1960, Sophie Martineau is being delivered by her mother from their home in New Orleans to spend the summer with her aunt and grandmother at Oak Cottage, the last remnants of her family's antebellum sugar cane plantation, Oak River. Sophie's mother is divorced, working all day, and starting night school to get her CPA, and needs to have her daughter out from underfoot for a few months so she can establish herself. Sophie is disappointed that she'll be away from her friends for the summer, and sad to learn that she won't be visiting her father in New York City. But mostly, she's nervous about spending the summer with her relations at Oak Cottage - with too many bugs, no air conditioning, and far from civilization and friends.

The entire opening chapters are framed by the troubled race relations of 1960. Sherman's frank language brings alive the generationally-changing attitudes of the times through the way that Sophie, her mother and aunt, and her grandmother each think about, discuss, and speak with "the help", at home and in society.

A big reader, Sophie whiles away some of the early days of her stay at Oak Cottage by delving into the big suitcase of her favorite books that she brought from home. The book that is referenced throughout The Freedom Maze is Edward Eager's The Time Garden. In The Time Garden, the four main characters are sent back in time on adventures by a magical creature they meet called the Natterjack. 

One day, when Sophie ventures closer to the ruins of the Oak River Big House, she explores an overgrown garden maze and discovers what appears to be a magical creature. Under the influence of Edward Eager, naively imagining that her time traveling adventures would be just as simple and clearcut and safe, she wishes herself away. But her magical creature is not a civilized and honorable tour guide of the past - he's drawn from darker stuff.

"... I wish I was dead!"

"Don't you be saying things in front of me, child." The Creature sounded alarmed. "Not less'n you means it."

"Well, then, I wish I wasn't me."

"Who you want to be?"

Sophie held out
The Time Garden. "I want to be like Ann and Roger and Eliza. I want to travel through time and have grand adventures and brothers and sisters and have everybody love me."

The room was very still. "That a wish?" the Creature asked solemnly.

Sophie was in no mood to be cautious. "Yes," she said. "It's a wish."

"Well, now," the Creature said. "Love is something you gots to earn for youself. I might could see about giving you some family, though. And adventures just come along natural with going back in time."

Sophie stood up, leaving The Time Garden on the window seat. "Okay, I'm ready. Is there anything I need to do?"

"You done it," said the Creature. "We's here."

Where is Sophie now? No surprise to anyone who's been paying attention to her tentative exploration of the history and grounds of Oak River. The Creature has taken her back 100 years to 1860, to the final pre-Civil War year of Oak River's existence as a slave-holding, fully-operating plantation. Thanks to her mussed-up appearance and her not-at-all-coincidentally darker skin from her running wild in the grounds back in 1960, she is mistakenly assumed to be a slave.

And so her time travel adventure will not be a romp but a real education in what slave life was like. And this is where the real magic of Delia Sherman's novel takes off. 

Freedom Maze
by Delia Sherman
Big Mouth House/Consortium | 9781931520300 | $16.95 | Nov 2011 (and already OP)

Watch for the paperback coming in early 2014 from Candlewick Press!

It got some great reviews and blurbs (see a comprehensive roundup here)!

“Sherman has created a finely honed work of art, a novel that deals eloquently with complex and intersecting issues of race, womanhood, class and age. In transporting the reader so fully into another time, The Freedom Maze becomes timeless. This is true magic.”
—Alaya Dawn Johnson, author of Moonshine

“A seamless blending of wondrous American myth with harsh American reality, as befits young Sophie’s coming-of-age. I think younger readers and adults alike will be completely riveted by her magical journey into her own family’s double-edged past.”
—N. K. Jemisin, author of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

“This is an absolutely fascinating story. The Freedom Maze draws you into a world of danger and mystery, of daring and change, at the dawning of the Civil War. Sophie’s adventures in the history of her family’s Louisiana plantation feel real, and lead her to a real understanding of racial truths she would never have caught a glimpse of without magic. Beautifully imagined and told with satisfyingly matter-of-fact detail: pot liquor and spoon bread, whips and Spanish Moss, corset covers and vévés and bitter, healing herbs.  The Freedom Maze is deep, meaningful fun.”
—Nisi Shawl, author of Filter House

“Sherman’s antebellum story exposes a wide sweep through a narrow aperture, where the arbitrary nature of race and ownership, kindred and love, are illuminated in the harsh seeking glare of an adolescent’s coming of age.”
Cory Doctorow, Boing Boing

“A bold and sensitively-written novel about a supposed-white child, Sophie Fairchild returned magically to a time of her ancestors who were slavemaster and slaves in the old South. This book puts the lie to those today making loose political statements about happy, comfortable slave families of that brutal era while telling a strong story that will not let the young reader stop turning pages to see how things will work out for Sophie and her fellow slaves, especially the cook Africa, and house slaves Antigua and Canada. I was mesmerized.”
—Jane Yolen, author of The Devil’s Arithmetic

“A subtle and haunting book that examines what it means to be who we are.”
—Holly Black, co-author of The Spiderwick Chronicles

The Freedom Maze won a few awards!

More, elsewhere:

Delia Sherman: twitter | web

Read an illuminating interview about The Freedom Maze with Delia Sherman at SF Signal.

And she wrote a guest post at the Diversity in YA Fiction blog.

And finally, you can read an extended preview of the book here – via Scribd – about half the novel.