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.
You must log in to post a comment.