The Freedom Maze, by Delia Sherman (Big Mouth House 2011, upper mg/YA, 258 pages)
Sophie is not happy at the thought of spending the summer with her aunt and old-fashioned, demanding, grandmother in the family home in Louisiana. It's 1960, her parents have gotten divorced, and her mother is going back to work--and thirteen year old Sophie is sure she will be bored and lonely. Even though she's brought some of her favorite books, like Edward Eager's The Time Garden, with her, there's only so much re-reading a girl can do...
But much to Sophie's wonder, she finds magic in her grandmother's garden when she meets a mysterious and mischievous creature. "I wish I wasn't me!" cries Sophie to this creature. "I want to travel through through time and have grand adventures and brothers and sisters and have everybody love me" (page 53). And so the creature sends Sophie back in time to 1860, when her family's plantation house is still standing, surrounded by sugar cane fields.
The last bit of Sophie's wish, however, doesn't come true quite so easily. Tanned and frizzyhaired, bedraggled and uncouth, with the family resemblance plain to see, Sophie is assumed to be a by-blow of the family's black sheep, and a slave. She is not exactly embraced with loving arms by her ancestors, but instead a place in the work of the plantation is found for her. For the next months, Sophie spends her days waiting on her great, great etc. grandmother, while living in the close community of the plantation's enslaved families. As one slave among many, Sophie must learn to keep her head down when necessary. But when Sophie must act to prevent a tragedy, passive resistance is not longer an option...
It's hard to read fiction about slavery. The injustices and cruelties, both the casual kind and the truly hateful, are not comfortable reading. Making this book even more uncomfortable is that Sophie arrives in the past with the prejudices of a girl from a 1960s racist family--this aspect of her character and upbringing was especially jarring, because I, as the reader, both identified with her, and had trouble remembering that she wasn't from the same present as me.
Fortunately, once Sophie is actually thrown into the community of the plantation, her prejudices are melted by human contact, and individual people became more important than skin color. And fortunately for me as a reader, these people, seen through Sophie's eyes, became people to care about myself, drawing me into the story despite this being a place I didn't particularly want to go.
Sherman has a pretty tight line to walk--she is making a clear statement about the evils of slavery, and must write about horrible things, but at the same time she is writing a book for younger readers. The general darkness--the violence, the cruelty, the evil of slavery--would probably not be too much for the upper middle school kid, and despite all this, it is not a depressing book. Sophie, although unhappy, knows she doesn't belong, and is confident (most of the time) that she won't have to stay, which makes it easier for her to endure her situation, and for the reader to feel a slight protective distancing from the characters of 1860. And it also makes the book more cheerful that the slaves with whom Sophie spends here time are not reduced to the sum of their oppressions, but are allowed to be living, laughing, angry, resisting people who are not depressing in and of themselves.
However, I did have one parental-guidance type concern. Rape is very much part of this world, not just in the casual assumption that this is why there are pale-skinned slaves, like Sophie, but in an actual attempted rape of one of Sophie's friends on the plantation (not graphically described, but quite clear as to what was happening). So some discretion is advised--I don't particularly want to chat with my own 11-year old about the Quadroon balls of New Orleans (mentioned in passing as a possible future for Sophie) and what happened to those women next, let alone have a discussion of what constitutes rape.
So there's a bit of a disjunction here. One the one hand, it's an excellent time travel adventure with a powerfully developed historical setting (lots of great detail, such that the time and places came fully alive) and great characters with whom both Sophie and the reader form powerful relationships. A young reader who loves Eager might feel, at first, that they were right at home, but reading something even more satisfying. Until they aren't--and they find themselves reading something that might shake them, might stretch them, might make make them think.
On the other hand, a reader ready for the darker side of things might feel put off by the "childish" beginning of the petulant girl escaping in children's books, and not ever get to the powerful stuff that will sweep them along into the troubling and moving reality of life as a slave.
That being said, I hope this book finds readers! I am very much in favor of books as pathways to learning--about history, about injustice, about the different forms power and gender relationships can take, about how people can change for the better...etc.! When you have a book, like this one, that is such a pathway, but is also a truly absorbing read in its own story, that's a great thing.
Here's one bit that made me stop and think:
"There ain't no such thing as a good mistress, on account of mistress ain't a good thing to be....Old Missy maybe taught you to read and write and speak as white as her own children. But she ain't set you free" (page 147).
Here's Delia Sherman talking about her book at Diversity in YA.