Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Freedom Maze: A Review

I have recently read some reviews that, with complete justification, point out the important, brave, and powerful aspects of The Freedom Maze. And while Delia Sherman’s new novel carries with it the potential to nudge many young minds into fresh territories of questioning and understanding, it is also a book that kept me up until three in the morning because I couldn’t stand the idea of putting it down. The discovery of a book with this intense and urgent readability is such a pleasure that I feel I must mention it before anything else. The Freedom Maze is a book that will keep you up at night.

Sophie is 13 years old when she finds herself sent to the countryside of Louisiana to live with her aunt and grandmother. Her mother, brittle around the edges and newly divorced, seems relieved to leave Sophie behind while she pursues a career in accounting, and Sophie is too quiet, too faintly accommodating, to resist. She sinks in, cocooning herself in a hot, Southern summer of the 1960s and the faded remnants of her family’s sugar plantation. Then, in an early twist that seems both astonishing and inevitable, she stumbles across a magical creature, makes a wish, and is transported to the 1860s where her own ancestors mistake her for a slave.

This is not a familiar magical adventure. Our heroine is not bestowed with many advantages to keep her safe or give her power. She is not insulated from the cruelties of the past or given a romantic and oblivious role within it. Most of the overt magic in the story is burned up in Sophie’s transportation to the past, and the bulk of the action concerns her adaptation to this alien world where she is transformed from a young white person of moderate privilege to a person whose darkened skin and circumstances mark her as the property of someone else.

The fierce reality of this past world and Sophie’s interaction with it stunned me. The novel opens up a portion of history and lays it out so deep and broad that you forget the strangeness of time travel and are concerned only with the things that are happening to the people inside it. Yes, it is shocking and uncomfortable to witness slavery from the interior of such a vivid and intelligently written story, but what I found most magical about this book was the way I never felt like I was observing from the safe vantage point of knowing comprehension. The characters are never “historical.” Instead, they drive the story to the point where you can’t help but care, deeply, what happens next because they are so full of life.

This is an important book and a brave, intelligent, compassionately written one. It tackles the challenging subjects of slavery, race, gender, and privilege, and follows a wonderful, wonderful character as she does the difficult work of figuring out what kind of person she is and wants to be. The Freedom Maze is a book that should be read because it will change the way people think and offers them the opportunity to look at some of the most uncomfortable aspects of this country’s history from inside another’s skin. But it is also a story that transports, a good read that will draw you on and on. It will keep you up at night, and if it also exercises your compassion and forces you to think hard about difficult things, it will do so with the momentum and pleasure of a book that makes you want to keep reading, inescapably, to the end.