In 1960, thirteen-year-old bookworm Sophie isn't happy about being sent off to stay with elderly relatives on their decrepit old house, which was once a plantation. When she meets a spirit, she makes a wish to time-travel back to the glamorous old days of Southern belles. She gets her wish. But Sophie, who isn't quite as white as she had thought, is assumed to be a runaway slave and put to work.

This sounds like a book in which a white person experiences how black people are oppressed, and learns that racism is bad. To my amusement, about a fourth of the way in, Sophie earnestly assures the spirit that she has learned that racism is bad, and he can send her back now. Not so fast. Sophie is nowhere near done, and the book is much more complicated than that.

The plot is similar to Octavia Butler's Kindred: unsurprisingly, given the basic similarity of all "modern person travels to the past; it sucks" plots. The pleasure and value of these books is not in originality, but in immersion in another time and its culture and values, in its differences and similarities to our own. The time and place are beautifully portrayed, and its horrors are portrayed at an age-appropriate level without being downplayed. For instance, it's made clear that slaves are raped by white men and the resulting children are kept as slaves or sold, and there is a scene of attempted rape. But there's no graphic details.

Surprisingly, Sophie never quite digs into the question of her own racial identity, beyond registering how others perceive her and learning that she does have black ancestry. But it was such a relevant question that I wanted to see her wrestle with it, both on the plantation and when she returns to her own time.

The Freedom Maze has gotten great advance press, including blurbs from Jane Yolen, Alaya Dawn Johnson, and Nisi Shawl. It has a slightly old-fashioned style, leisurely and descriptive, like a less ornate Rosemary Sutcliff. Most of the book is about Sophie's daily life and the relationships she makes and observes on the plantation. There's a bit of conventional action at the climax, but it's primarily coming of age story and a well-evoked portrait of a time and place. A thoughtful, well-characterized, immersive novel.

The Freedom Maze


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