Annotation: In 1960 Louisiana, thirteen-year-old Sophie Martineau is sent by her recently divorced mother to Oak Cottage, an old plantation on the bayou, to stay with her grandmother for the summer. Bored and lonely, Sophie makes a wish that inadvertently transports her 100 years in the past, where, after being mistake for a slave, she experiences life on a pre-Civil War plantation.
Personal thoughts: I am a big fan of both historical fiction and time travel, so this book was right up my alley. I thought the author did an outstanding job of describing the plantation and life as a slave in 1860. The reader is truly transported into this tumultuous period of time, something that I think would be very valuable for tween or teen readers who are learning about the Civil War or slavery. The author’s passion for this era, as well as slave narratives and memoirs, is very evident throughout the novel, and adds that much more to the already exceptional story.
Plot summary: In 1960 New Orleans, thirteen-year-old Sophie Martineau is struggling to cope with her parents’ recent divorce. Her father has moved to New York City, and her former best friend is no longer allowed to socialize with the child of a single mother. To make matters worse, Sophie’s mother has decided to send her to Oak Cottage, an old plantation outside of New Orleans, to stay with her grandmother and aunt for the summer. Bored and lonely, Sophie makes a wish to be someone else, and is inadvertently transported back in time to 1860. Having spent several weeks in the sun exploring the bayou of Oak Cottage, Sophie’s tanned skin causes her to be mistaken for a slave, and she is immediately put to work in Oak River House, the luxurious home of her ancestors, the Fairchilds. Sophie is used to the racial segregation in the south of 1960, but nothing prepares her for the cruelty and discrimination she experiences as a slave in a pre-Civil War plantation.
Review: Inspired by real life slave narratives and memoirs, veteran author Delia Sherman’s The Freedom Maze proves to be a well-written and intriguing novel that is both entertaining and educational. Although the story involves time travel to the 19th century, it begins in the past, over fifty years ago, at the dawn of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Sophie is a complex character, as is her mother, a recently divorced, bitter woman who warns Sophie against associating with “negroes,” especially men. As was likely the case with many children during this period of time, Sophie is unsure of exactly why she is supposed to be afraid of African Americans, but takes her mother’s word for it, trying hard to be a proper southern lady. Sherman does an excellent job of conveying Sophie’s frustration, both with her parents’ divorce and her “exile” at the Oak River plantation. The story gets even more layered, however, after Sophie travels back to 1860. The many plantation slaves become to focus of Sophie’s new life, as do the ancestors she is forced to serve after they assume she is the light-skinned offspring of a relative and his servant. The author’s description of life on the plantation, from vocabulary to daily tasks, is very well done, and gives The Freedom Maze enough historical accuracy to have a strong place in the classroom. Overall, an exceptional novel that can easily be enjoyed by tweens, teens and adults, particularly those with an interest in American history.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Reading level: Grade 6+
Similar titles: Kindred by Octavia E. Butler.
Themes: Time travel, slavery, plantations, racism, divorce, American history, the South, the Civil War.
Awards/Reviews: Starred review from Kirkus, positive reviews from authors Alaya Dawn Johnson, N.K. Jemisin, Nisi Shawl, Cory Doctorow, Jane Yolen, Holly Black, and Elizabeth Knox.
Series Information: N/A
Discussion questions:- Compare life for African Americans in 1860 to 1960. How were African Americans treated in each time period? Do you think things were that different between 1860 and 1960?
- Why do you think the Fairchilds mistook Sophie for a slave? Do you think they would have treated her differently if they thought she was white?
- Why do you think Antigua was so upset when she thought Sophie lost her free papers?
- What do you think Sophie learned by living life as a slave in 1860?
- Do you think life for African Americans has changed between 1960 and the present? How?
- Read an actual slave narrative and compare Delia Sherman’s descriptions of life on a plantation. How historically accurate do you think The Freedom Maze is?
- Why do you think the novel is called The Freedom Maze? What is the significance of the maze in the story?