The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman combines time-travel fantasy and historical fiction in an different way that makes for an interesting read. Sherman begins her novel introducing us to the thirteen-year-old Sophie Martineau and the very different world of 1960s Louisiana. Sophie's mama is a Fairchild of Oak River, which was once a great sugar cane plantation. Now, the remains of the Fairchilds, Sophie's aunt and grandmother, live in Oak Cottage, a small house that resides on a small portion of the land that the family still owns. Sophie's mama is a beauty, with shiny chestnut hair, smooth and creamy skin and a waist that was "not much bigger than twenty inches around, even without a girdle." With her "puppy fat, frizzy, dishwater hair, imperfect skin and thick glasses," Sophie is a great trial to her mama, especially since her father divorced her and moved to New York City where he married a woman who is an artist and probably Jewish. Sherman does a fine job describing the South of the 1960s and the social mores that go with it, painting a vivid picture of the time. And the heat. I was sweating along with Sophie as her mama drove made the long drive to Oak Cottage in the steamy heat of May, windows of the 1954 Ford station wagon rolled up tight and Sophie wearing her new best outfit - a blue seersucker suit, nylons and a garter belt and her first ever pair of high-heeled pumps.
At first, Oak Cottage seems to be only marginally better for Sophie than spending time with her critical, self-involved mother who is prone to giving the silent treatment. Aunt Enid's housekeeping feels borderline hoarder, despite the presence of Ofelia, the housekeeper. And Grandmama spends her days in bed in a room that is crammed with the elegant antiques that are the remains of of the once grand Big House. But, Aunt Enid has a green thumb and a well stocked library, which is perfect because Sophie is a reader, especially of two favorites of mine, E. Nesbit and Edward Eager. In fact, it is the adventures had by the children in Eager's book The Time Garden and the strange looking Psammead from Nesbit's The Story of the Amulet that are fresh in Sophie's imagination when she wanders into the overgrown hedge maze on the edge of the property and hears a voice. Soon, she has made a wish that is not exactly what she was hoping for and sent back in time 100 years by a creature who insists that she has to stay until she has done what she went there to do.
At this point, The Freedom Maze shifts from fantasy to historical fiction, with Sophie being mistaken for a slave sent to work on the Fairchild's Oak River Plantation by Mr. Robert Fairchild, formerly of New Orleans. Sophie's appearance leads the Fairchilds to assume that she is the offspring of Mr. Fairchild himself and one of his slaves. As the novel unfolds, Sophie and readers learn that the masters of plantations often produced children with their slaves, children who were their property. Despite an early infraction and illness that keeps Sophie from working for several days, she eventually is given the position of lady's maid to Old Missy, Mrs. Fairchild herself, because she can read and, presumably, because she is fair skinned for a slave. When Sophie's resemblance to Miss Charlotte, the youngest, most spoiled Fairchild who could give Scarlett O'Hara a run for her money, is noted by a cousin during a family gathering, Sophie is sent to the yard to find work there. Her time cleaning pots in the kitchen and then working in the sugar refinery are all described in depth and in a way that made it easy to imagine. Sophie makes a few attempts to contact the creature and return to her own time period, but as time passes on the plantation she gradually forgets her old life in the future.
Sherman introduces conflict into the plot - beyond the daily threat of beatings or worse that the slaves faced, despite the fact that Mrs. Fairchild was said to be a kind master who rarely beat her slaves - comes in the form of Mr. Beaufort Waters, a visitor at a nearby plantation who begins to court Miss Charlotte. Mr. Waters also begins to take what he chooses from the slaves at Oak River, giving Sophie's thigh a squeeze as she serves at dinner one night, causing her to drop her tray. It is soon revealed that Mr. Beau is also taking what he wants from Antigua, a slave whose family has taken in Sophie like one of their own. Antigua keeps her mouth shut, even when Sophie walks in on Mr. Beau as he is about to rape her. The danger that this puts both slaves into forces Antigua's family to plan a daring escape that will hopefully end with her freedom in the North. With her fair skin and Fairchild nose, Sophie finds herself taking a huge risk and posing as Miss Charlotte in an effort to keep the slave hunters off Antigua's trail.
Sherman brings her story full circle and allows Sophie, after she returns to 1960 to both confront her mother and stand up for herself as well as research the history of Oak River and the surrounding plantations in an effort to find out what became of Antigua. While I found the historical aspects of The Freedom Maze deeply satisfying to read, I felt like the fantasy elements of the story languished and could have been made better use of. I loved that Sherman used brilliant fantasy writers like Nesbit and Eager as her way into the time travel, wish granting aspects of the story, but I felt like she abandoned this realm of magic for the magical practices and herbal medicine of the slaves. I appreciated how exhausting and grueling working as a slave was for a soft-handed girl like Sophie, but I would have like to see her use her smarts along with her knowledge of future history to have a more powerful role in her own story. I feel like The Freedom Maze would have been better served if it was written solely as a work of historical fiction, perhaps with Sophie learning that she was in fact descended from slaves, or if there was a stronger role for fantasy in the novel. I mention this only because The Freedom Maze is a good novel that is very much worth reading, but it is a good novel that could have been even better.
Source: Review Copy