Audiobooker: I've won her giveaway! No memory whatsoever of entering this giveaway, but enter I evidently did. So late last year, I found myself in possession of Delia Sherman's The Freedom Maze (which, in true Pacific Northwest fashion sat on my doorstep in the pouring rain and arrived soaked through ... luckily it was not a retail audiobook with those flimsy boxes and survived with no damage). Among the several reading resolutions I made for 2013 is to read books/audiobooks cluttering up my bookshelves and give them new homes. (Of course, I really don't have a prayer of doing this, but I'll make a valiant effort.) With The Freedom Maze I've made a start.
Six years ago I read Sherman's Changeling and remember really enjoying it's delightful mix of Manhattan and fairyland. In The Freedom Maze, Sherman does something similar: portraying the same character in 1960 and in 1860. In 1960, Sophie Fairchild has been unceremoniously dumped at the decaying Louisiana sugarcane plantation of her maternal grandmother and spinster aunt, since her newly divorced mother needs some time to focus on her new job in New Orleans. Sophie's family are segregationists, decrying the upheavals in their lives brought about by Negroes insisting on their civil rights. Her father moved to Greenwich Village upon his divorce and has just announced that he has married a Jewish woman. One day Sophie gets lost in a dilapidated hedge maze, discovering the falling-down summer house at its center; but she needs her aunt's help getting out.
While in the maze, Sophie also encounters a mysterious trickster and makes an injudicious wish for excitement that sends her back in time but in the same place. Her tanned skin and somewhat frizzy hair ensure that she is assumed to be Negro, but her resemblance to the Martineaus is striking: everyone believes she is the daughter of the family black sheep, who is living in New Orleans with his mixed- race mistress. Sophie's prickly personality make it difficult for her to fit in with the plantation's Negroes, and it soon gets her into serious trouble with her "owners." But, as the creature has told her, there is something critical that only Sophie can do and until she does it, she won't be leaving 1860. The question is, can Sophie survive slavery to complete her task? Will she ever return to her own time?
Sherman's story is oddly compelling (I had a hard time getting excited about this book due to its cover), and she looks at what happened to enslaved African Americans with a clear eye: miscegenation, physical violence, the emotional toll of racism, and the unbelievably taxing and dangerous work are unflinchingly portrayed here. Child readers do not get a pass. Sophie is not a particularly likable person, but we definitely grow to respect her over the course of the novel. The issues -- from both eras -- are big here, but the story never feels overwhelmed. My own liberal biases make me itch, yet again, for a story where black people can be in command of their own salvation but the convention of the white savior works in this context. There's a sly revelation at the end that eases my concern about this a little bit.
Robin Miles -- who I had heard once before but wanted to hear again. Miles is excellent here, managing a large cast of characters from two centuries and races. She is as believable as a 13-year-old 20th century white child of Southern privilege as she is an enslaved black mother as she is an elderly white woman being served by who she thinks is her granddaughter. She's equally at home in the novel's male characters, although -- upon reflection -- this is a pretty matriarchal book. I also enjoyed how Sophie's growing maturity is reflected in Miles' narration, as her voice replaces petulance with increasing confidence. The audiobook's pacing is just right as well, with a lot of tension as the novel reaches its pretty exciting conclusion.
I was disappointed that Miles chose not to sing a spiritual that occurs in the book. The audiobook concludes with an interview with Sherman where the usual questions (Where do you get your ideas? What kind of research did you do?) get asked and answered. Sherman discusses the book cover, which she liked a lot, explaining the artist's design intent (alas my memory fails me exactly what this was). Kathleen Jennings, the artist, explains a little bit about her process here. While I haven't changed my mind about it -- it does not encourage young readers to pick it up off the shelf -- I appreciate this insight.
(This is my second book in a row narrated by a Robin.)
The Freedom Maze makes several references to a 1958 novel by Edward Eager (not much online about Mr. Eager), The Time Garden. Eager, in turn, was a big fan of E. Nesbit. Having just sat in on the annual lovefest (yay! Seraphina) that is the may-I-say awkwardly named YMA press conference (which always makes me think of Yma Sumac), it's always lovely to see how the world of books and reading for children honors its past while always in search of the next Nesbit, Eager, Sherman, or whomever.
[A half-naked statue hidden in the middle of the maze has been dubbed "Belle Watling" by Sophie's Aunt Enid, who sends the girl in search of Gone With the Wind to find out why. "She never did figure out why Belle Watling was a good name for an armless statue. (p. 30)" This publicity still is Ona Munson, who played Belle in the movie. It was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]
The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman
Narrated by Robin Miles
Listening Library, 2012. 8:19