The Freedom Maze is a book that can be re-read. I’d first read this book in 2012 and may have read it since, but on pulling it off my shelves again, it still reads beautifully.Mind you, this is a book that will make you uncomfortable. It talks about race-relations, but you will find that it can be used to talk about any kind of servitude- any form of bullying and harassment that masks itself as justice and the maintenance of an orderly society.
It made me think about the bullying that some kinds of people exercise their authority to practice with impunity, but it also made me think about class-gaps and the treatment of the informal labour industry (in countries everywhere e.g. US, Philippines, Thailand) specifically, house help in India.
The book’s protagonist is 13 year Sophie Martineau a passive, bookish, unhappy teen who leads an unchallenged and uninteresting life with her controlling, unsympathetic mother. It is set in 1960s Louisiana just after desegregation. Sophie is sent back to the decaying family home to live with her aunt for the summer.
Unhappy about her life and anxious about the future, she makes a wish for a different life, and is promptly sent back in time to her family home as it was in the year 1860 before the Civil War led to making slavery illegal.
Sophie’s adventures are not at all like the blithe, contextless brand of fantasy that children’s novels like E.Nesbit’s Five Children And It or Chronicles of Narnia narrate. In their review of the book, Kirkus Reviews also mentions Time Garden as a literary referent- a novel where a group of white children go back in time and free slaves. Instead, Sophie herself is taken to be a slave (because she has a tan from being outdoors) and is put to work on her family plantation.
She experiences the complete physical vulnerability of the slaves quite practically when she gets whipped for reading a book or has a pair of shears flung at her. These experiences wring a new moral independence out of Sophie’s nature, she starts seeing herself as one of the slaves and forgets her origins in the 20th century.
Sophie’s developing moral judgement evolves from her own existence as a slave. As such she is not merely a sympathetic, invulnerable outsider developed out of a patronising and blind world-view, but a concrete imagining of what slavery is.
The book is detailed, sensitive, and gripping. Delia Sherman makes use of African- Caribbean myth to underpin the fantasy element of the plot, and the voices of the characters are poignant and unforgettable. When Sophie is pulled back out of the past we are with her in that moment, still wondering about the fate of the characters who have been left behind. She returns to the present with a better understanding of her ancestors and the world she is living in.