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The Freedom Maze is a compelling historical time slip novel in which a girl travels back in time to her slave-owning ancestors' plantation. It offers a passionate but never preachy condemnation of racism. It is highly intertextual, and its warning about being careful what you learn from the books you read is delivered in a manner not dissimilar to that of Northanger Abbey, one of my favourite books. And yet, for all its merits, I have two problems with the book. The first is just a personal dislike, which I’ll get out of the way here. Time travel stories in which some entity, being or force causes the protagonist to go back in time for some purpose frustrate me, as I can never accept that this protagonist is special enough to merit such treatment. The second is more complex and much more significant, so I'll leave it till later in the review.

The Freedom Maze opens in May 1960, as thirteen-year-old Sophie Fairchild Martineau is reluctantly leaving her home in New Orleans to spend the summer with her grandmother and aunt. They live in rural Louisiana, on property that used to be part of the Fairchilds' sugarcane plantation, Oak River. Sophie is being sent there because her mother works and is going to train as an accountant at night, while her father has moved to New York City.

The attitudes of Sophie's family and of their social group in New Orleans are quickly and deftly depicted in brief chapters; readers are left in no doubt about the widespread racism of the era. The first few pages give us Sophie's mother's favourite topic of conversation—"The Good Old Days before the War of Northern Aggression" (p. 3); her repeated warnings that "Negro men, especially young ones, could be dangerous" (p. 6); the unremarkable "Whites Only!" sign on the bathroom door in a drug store, and Aunt Enid's complete agreement with her sister that it wouldn't be "natural" for Sophie to "sit in the same classroom with little Negro children" (p. 11). Sophie's mother is often unkind and unreasonable to Sophie, so it's hard to view her with much sympathy, but the treatment she receives as a divorced, working woman does contribute a quiet feminist subtext to the story’s more obvious concern with racism.

Soon after arriving at her grandmother's, Sophie explores an old maze on the Fairchild property, where she encounters "the Creature," a magical being that has been called by a variety of names, including Br'er Rabbit. Sophie's first experience of it is as a voice that teases and insults her and leaves her lost and panicked inside the maze. Sophie had wished to have an adventure, but wanted it to be a "trip to the past or a world like Narnia, filled with magic and talking animals" (p. 33). Deciding the Creature is evidently not the kind of being to give her the adventure story she wants, she throws herself instead into exploring the bayou. When the news comes that Sophie's father has remarried, however, she is so miserable that she tells the Creature that she wishes she were dead, and then—slightly less rashly—that she were not herself.

Sophie finds herself in Oak River in 1860, where to her shock and dismay, her ancestors take her for a slave. This happens because she is tanned, barefoot, and ironically, because she looks like a Fairchild—the immediate assumption being that one of the Fairchild men has fathered her on a slave woman. Old Missy, the Fairchild matriarch—who seems unperturbed at Sophie's being her granddaughter—decides to have her trained as a lady's maid. The dangers of time travel soon take their toll, and Sophie nearly dies from an infection. In a high fever, she sees the Creature beg an old man, Papa Legba (who reminds Sophie of Abe Lincoln, if Lincoln were black), to save her. Papa Legba scolds the Creature for overstepping its boundaries in bringing Sophie to the past, as "all doorways" belong to him. A third, "queenly figure," whom Sophie takes for Old Missy's cook Africa, appears, and agrees to heal Sophie. Later she learns that Africa is a "two-headed woman," a "Voodooienne." Africa tells Sophie that her great-great-grandmother was a very powerful "priestess in Yorubaland," although some of that power is lost, now that "The old gods are far from home, with lots of folks calling on them for help" (p. 207).

The appearance of Papa Legba in the book is deeply problematic, especially as the Creature is shown to get the better of him. In an interview Sherman says she consulted a Voudon priest, who advised her about the parts of the book dealing with Voudon. "He warned me right up front that inserting that tricksy keeper of doors and time Papa Legba into the book was a dangerous choice, but I had to. The logic of the book demanded it." I could see no evidence in the text for the necessity Sherman felt to disregard this advice, and a workaround for this plot point would have been a simple matter. Although I know little about Voudon, it seems that Sherman's awareness of the care needed in depicting such an oft-misrepresented and stereotyped religion would have led her to respect the advice about using Papa Legba is too sacred a figure to be used so lightly, in a move that appears appropriative.

In all, Sophie spends almost six months in the past, during which time she experiences the life of a slave, from the relatively easy work in the Big House, to the far more demanding and dangerous sugarhouse where she's sent as punishment, with a glimpse of the field workers' conditions. These are all described in fascinating detail: food, clothes, smells, songs and the pleasures as well as the many hardships and injustices of daily life. In this respect, the framed story of Sophie's life as a slave in 1860 works extremely well. Sophie learns how utterly meaningless the apparently absolute divide between black and white, slave and owner, really is. She also learns that other plantation owners are much worse than Old Missy and her son Dr. Charles, as is made very clear by the stories of slaves living on other plantations. And yet, it makes no difference in a fundamental way, because, as Africa says: "There ain't no such thing as a good mistress, on account of a mistress ain't a good thing to be" (p. 147). On this principle, the book is utterly clear.

Intertextuality forms an important part of The Freedom Maze. While references to Edith Nesbit and Edward Eager's stories of time travel add much enjoyment to the book, I think the intertextual use of a central incident from the latter's The Time Garden doesn't quite work. This is an adventure in which the child protagonists participate in a plan to get a runaway slave family on the Underground Railroad towards freedom in Canada. With the help of the Natterjack, the Creature's magical equivalent, the family is transported to Niagara Falls. The family members bow to the children in thanks, and are told they never need bow to anyone again, now being free. While The Time Garden, published in 1958, is very much of its time, it seems also of Nesbit's time, with "savage painted Indians" attacking the children on their trip to the time just before the Revolutionary War, and the South Sea island on which they land being populated by cannibalistic natives. Although The Freedom Maze obviously doesn't contain these outdated racial stereotypes, it does retain the central element of white children being sent back to the past to rescue black people.

Once Sophie has played her crucial role in helping a slave to escape, the Creature dumps her back into her own time, where she discovers that she's only been away for an hour. There's a nice touch in her aunt's realising that something magical has happened, as Sophie has grown over three inches in that hour. The conflicted mixture of deep relief, disorientation, and loss Sophie feels on being safely back in her own time is beautifully depicted. On a larger scale, returning to the different but still ubiquitous racism of the 1960s, Sophie understands it for what it is. After her return to 1960, Sophie sees Ofelia, the black woman who works for the Fairchilds (and one of Africa's descendants), who somehow intuits something of what has happened. Sophie is eager to discuss her experiences in the past, but Ofelia refuses. Although Sophie is disappointed, "the last thing she wanted was to be like Old Missy and make folks mind her just because she was white and rich and free and they weren't" (p. 249). Even if Ofelia is a free woman, her choices are still limited by her race in her society, and Sophie now understands this. Taken just in its own right, Sophie's developmental arc is very effective, and well done. There's a strong sense that, like the slave girl she helps rescue, she too will be looking toward New York City for freedom from her mother's family and her earlier lack of independence.

About the most overt type of racism—the outright belief that people of another race are inherently different and inferior to those of own's own—The Freedom Maze delivers a clear, strong message of condemnation. Through Sophie’s experiences in the past, she learns how evil those "Good Old Days" actually were, and how acceptance of the system corrupted the slave owners as they destroyed the lives of many slaves. And through the careful, detailed depiction of the social history of the slaves on a plantation, Sherman gives an importance to those lives.

However, that isn't the only type of racism that still exists, and on the other type the novel's message is not as clear. This is the type that has caused characters of colour to remain sadly underrepresented and relegated to the position of sidekicks in books, films and TV shows, especially in science fiction and fantasy. The narrative structure of The Freedom Maze allows for quite different readings of the book as a whole. The framed, 1860 story gives the slaves a strong voice, and the very fact that Creature's purpose in sending Sophie to the past is to ensure a black girl's safety highlights the importance of those voices and lives. However, the framing story is Sophie's, and Sophie is white and gains understanding and agency herself through experiencing life as a slave; in effect this positions the slaves as instruments of Sophie's growth. For me, the strength of The Freedom Maze's anti-racist message is weakened by the way the story is framed. Certainly, in a world in which some still attempt to argue that slavery wasn't always bad, as there were "good" slave owners, books like The Freedom Maze and Laurie Halse Anderson's Seeds of America series offer a helpful corrective. But the sad irony is that The Freedom Maze offers that corrective while contributing to the harmful imbalance between books with white protagonists and those with protagonists of colour.

Hallie O'Donovan lives in County Dublin with two daughters, two dogs, and a precarious stack of books at the end of the bed which will almost definitely take just one or two more.

Hallie O'Donovan lives in County Dublin with two daughters, two dogs, and a precarious stack of books at the end of the bed which will almost definitely take just one or two more.
7 comments on “The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman”

"Although The Freedom Maze obviously doesn't contain these outdated racial stereotypes, it does retain the central element of white children being sent back to the past to rescue black people. "
"However, the framing story is Sophie's, and Sophie is white"
"But the sad irony is that The Freedom Maze offers that corrective while contributing to the harmful imbalance between books with white protagonists and those with protagonists of colour."
Sorry, but I am rather confused by the points I quoted above. We actually come to realise that Sophie is NOT completely white. She is mixed race as is her entire family. That is one of the points of the book in fact (more even than the white-person-that-goes-back-to-save-a-black-person): that she initially identifies as white but realises that there is the truth of unspoken intrusion in her family - that is why she is assumed so easily to be a slave; and when she comes back her aunt pointedly reacts negatively once she learns that Sophie was taken for a slave in the past - because she realises the painful truth (to her) of their non-whiteness. I think that changes a lot the question of the narrative frame for me.


Yes, Sophie does find out she isn't "completely white", but I can't see this fact of her ancestry as in any way significant compared to her experience of life in her own time. In the framing story, as I said, she is perceived as white and has the freedoms and privilege that gives her. This is the reason I quoted the line in which Sophie says she doesn't want to try to force Ofelia to talk to her just because she was "white and rich and free". That scene shows that Sophie has learned to understand and acknowledge her privilege, and it's a powerful one for that reason.
The fact that one of the Fairchild ancestors married a black woman and, as Sophie surmises, must have "forced the family to accept her as white" (p. 257) doesn't make the experience of the present-day family anything other than that of upper-class whites. And, again, I think the book shows that very clearly.

It seems that this book contrasts rather unfavorably with Octavia Butler's Kindred, in terms of complexity of racism and using a time travel narrative to advance anti-racist critique.

The book has a lot of problems, all dealing with the history of Louisiana and who was there and why -- not to mention an entirely implausible invocation of the "underground railroad," which didn't operate in that classic manner because it was too far away from border and free soil states. Not even Solomon Northup was able to manage this, and as a literate prosperous free man of color kidnapped from his home in NY and sold in Louisiana, and later Texas he actually knew geography and could read and write. See: Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup. However, it is certainly plausible that one could escape by getting oneself lost among the multitudes of free people of color and other slaves in New Orleans. It didn't happen too often, but it did. And once in NO you could, sometimes, manage to escape via ship, if the ship didn't put in then at other slave states ports on the way up to NYC. But once the slave states ports were blockaded by the Union navy that was darned near impossible. But once the Union occupied New Orleans, you were in good shape to go.
It was unlikely that actual vodoun would have been found out on the plantations due to where from came the slaves. Vodoun came to New Orleans with the refugees fleeing the San Domingue revolution -- and it came mostly through women because their masters chose to bring women and children rather than the men (who they couldn't trust not to kill them, perhaps). They brought particularly their placage families, who were generally free, and they didn't go to work the plantations. Thus the practice, without the houngans, and in collision with the African descended religious practices already there, vodoun changed enormously in New Orleans, becoming voodoo and / or hoodoo. (Even now, when actual Haitian vodoun practicioners come to NO, they can't have rituals because none in that community can play the rhythms or know the hymns that bring the loa. Been there when the whole thing was called off in disgust by the invited houngan.)
There were other spiritual belief systems out in the country, the layers of Native belief and practice mixed with the Kongo, the Sene-Gambian and so on. But slaves from Ouida (present day Benin and Togo) and Yorubaland (Nigeria) were never brought to the U.S. (at least in numbers that would have influenced the already established groups and their evolution via the pressures of protestantism practices of the Upper South), anywhere. That there's some idea of Eleggua in Louisiana is due to its history as a French and Spanish colony. Thus Papa Legba arriving via Haiti then. The African regions of the foduces were heavily harvested for slaves that went to San Domingue, but never to the U.S. The Yoruba weren't slaved heavily until toward the end of the Atlantic trade, and they went to Cuba an Brasil, but not here. Occasionally a slave was bought here of course who came from the Caribbean, but very seldom. Recall fewer slaves were brought from Africa to North America than anywhere else in the New World, and that the trade was abolished by federal law in 1808. It was 'natural increase' that moved that number of African slaves of about 350,000 to over 4 million by 1861. Thus we have this very real condition that we loosely call now African American culture, and which spread via the domestic slave trade from the upper Old South. Some of its markers are english speaking, protestant, banjo playing. Only the last was found in Louisiana, due to that Sene-gambian layer that arrived before 1803 and before the San Domingan diaspora.
Nor were many plantations destroyed during the occupation of Louisiana by the forces arrayed against the war of southern aggression -- or the Rebellion, as General Grant always termed what we've taken to calling the Civil War. It took the Depression of the 1930's to do that job on a large scale. Of course a significant segment of Louisiana will say otherwise, even today ....
These things probably don't matter to the kids who are the targe audience for a book like this, that so much skirts actual historicity. It's the museum stuff like how to make soap that probably speak most to them anway. But still, kids will believe this is how it really was, imprint on it, and then hold the wrong ideas for the rest of their lives, as people who teach history in the trenches have learned. See, Phoebe the Spy, which brings hordes of little girls to the Fraunces Tavern Museum to find the little black girl heroine who saved General Washington from being poisoned by the British occupiers of New York City! They burst into tears and call the staff liars when informed there never was a Phoebe, Samuel Fraunces wasn't a man of color and George Washington was never hiding in Manhattan during the Occupation.


Alexander: Yes, I think there's an obvious comparison to be made with KINDRED, though I haven't read it (yet), so I can't comment on how favourable or unfavourable the comparison is. It would be interesting to know if THE FREEDOM MAZE contains any intertextual mentions of KINDRED; they certainly aren't obvious if so, while the children's books are alluded to very clearly.
Foxessa: Thank you for the detailed historical information regarding Voudon/Voodoo. I did some research into it for this review, and pretty quickly realised that there was no possibility that I'd be able to learn enough to address some of the problems you've mentioned.

"About the most overt type of racism—the outright belief that people of another race are inherently different and inferior to those of own's own—The Freedom Maze delivers a clear, strong message of condemnation."
-- well, so?
This is like courageously denouncing slavery -- as if you were William Lloyd Garrison, facing down an anti-abolitionist mob, or Sojourner Truth helping runaways. Sorry, that position simply isn't available to anyone in 2012.
There isn't any pro-slavery party out there. This is a settled question. You get no chops for complacently reiterating a basic trope of your own time and place. Yeah, slavery is bad and the sun rises in the east.
This is roughly equivalent to a Frenchman being four-square behind the effort to recover the Jerusalem from the infidel in 1099; an easy way to establish your own bona fides.
It's profoundly annoying when people using the past to congratulate themselves on how wonderful they are by comparison; "chronological snobbery", as the term goes. By reducing things to Good Guys/Bad Guys melodrama, it denies the essentially tragic nature of human existence.
As Marx put it in one of his more felicitous moments: "Human beings make history. But we don't make it just as we please."
In other words, choice -- agency -- exists but it exists within severe constraints in any given time and place. You play with the cards you're dealt; you can never divorce yourself from your context. You operate within walls built by the choices all the people before you made.
We are not wiser, smarter or more virtuous than our ancestors; we are, at most, somewhat better informed.
Or as Simonides of Keos put it: "So I will never waste my lifespan in the vain unprofitable search for a perfect man. If you find him, send me word. But that one I will love and honor who does nothing base from free will. Against Necessity, even Gods do not fight."
It's somewhere between difficult and impossible to determine what slaves in the 1850's thought about their own condition and the society of which they were part -- they're all dead now and didn't leave many records of their thoughts at the time.
The closest we can get are the (meager and written mostly by white people) contemporary records of what they said, and stuff like the interviews done by the WPA writers in the 1930's. The latter have to be approached with caution; the interviewees had to speak cautiously, and had been children before emancipation in any case. Memories shift(*), which is why any lawyer will tell you how profoundly unreliable eyewitness testimony is.
Eugene Genovese did a lot of very careful work on teasing out the material in his books on the Old South; I recommend them.
Also, about the possibly "non-respectful" treatment of Voudun; are we to be equally respectful of hard-shell Baptism? Catholicism? Buddhism? Islam? Wicca? And if not, why not? Religions are ideologies and fair game. Nobody has property rights with them.
(*) thus post-1865 explanations of the Civil War in terms of States Rights. At the time, secessionists talked about almost nothing but slavery. As Moseby, the great Confederate guerilla leader, said he never once heard any Southerner mention another cause for the war until it was over.

I don't see the central message of this book as being "Slavery is bad." To me, the book stresses that there's nothing natural about race; that privilege is invisible unless you don't have it; and that your real family is made up of the people who care about you.

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