The Freedom Maze
Nancy Werlin first brought THE FREEDOM MAZE to our attention in the comments to the 2012 Newbery Reading List thread. I hunted a copy down, read it, and loved it as much as Nancy did. My gut instinct was that it was a top five sort of book, but as I shared the book with various people my response was tempered by their mixed to negative responses. I’ve just reread the book and find it even more impressive a second time around, so much, in fact, that it jumps back into the thick of things. For me, this novel belongs in the conversation every bit as much as OKAY FOR NOW, A MONSTER CALLS, DEAD END IN NORVELT, or any other strong contending novel.
It passes Nina’s first page test with distinguished writing evident in the first several paragraphs.
Sophie Martineau looked out the window of her mother’s 1954 Ford station wagon and watched her life slide behind her into the past.
It was raining. It rained a lot in May in Louisiana, but Sophie couldn’t help feeling this rain was personal. It was bad enough to be saying goodbye to her friends and her school and the house she’d grown up in to spend the summer stuck out in the bayou with Grandmama and Aunt Enid, knowing she’d be coming back to a different neighborhood and a different school in the fall. Doing it in the rain was just rubbing her nose in it.
They drove past her best friend Diana Roget’s house. In the wet, the big stucco house was grim and uninviting–just like Mrs. Roget after Papa up and moved to New York. Once the divorce was final, she hadn’t even allowed Diana to come over any more and Sophie wasn’t invited to Galveston as she had been every summer since third grade. It was like Mrs. Roget thought divorce was catching, like cooties. Although she’d denied it, Sophie suspected Diana thought so, too.
From these opening paragraphs we can see two features that will ultimately mark this book as one of the most distinguished contributions to literature–perhaps the most distinguished. First, the setting: not only is there a rich description of the physical landscape, but Sherman has captured the millieu of the Louisiana bayou in both 1860 and 1960. And second, the character of Sophie, a full-bodied characterization with real growth and change, who ought to win the hearts of readers every bit as much as Doug or Connor. The remaining literary elements–plot, style, and theme–are equally formidable.
I reviewed this book for Horn Book, and it was a challenging one to write. I’m typically able to write my reviews in about 200 words, 20 less than my limit. But this is a book where I wanted to double my limit because there was just so much to discuss.
It’s 1960, and thirteen-year-old Sophie Martineau has just been deposited by her imperious, newly divorced mother at their ancestral home in the Louisiana bayou, once the site of a grand sugar plantation, to spend the summer with her spinster aunt and bedridden grandmother. She soon gets lost in the estate’s overgrown maze, meets a Creature that is equal parts Psammead and Brer Rabbit, and is transported back in time one hundred years. With her summer tan, Sophie is mistaken for a slave but granted a favored position in the Big House. As she experiences the moral injustices of slavery, however, she falls out of favor and is reassigned to the quarters. After she has played a dangerous but critical role in the novel’s climax, the Creature whisks her back to 1960, where she must research the end of the story. In doing so, she finds the courage to defy her own mother and reconnect with her father. The story is quite ambitious: not only does Sherman pay homage to classic fantasy tropes, she vividly evokes two historical settings, turning a glaring light on the uncomfortable attitudes and practices of earlier eras. While Sherman has Sophie solving too many of the slaves’ problems (the white savior motif), her coming of age nevertheless resonates with moral outrage and righteous indignation.
I’d like to recant the criticism of Sophie solving too many problems. Because she doesn’t. Yes, she found the hideaway for soon-to-be-runaway slave Antigua. Yes, she forged the note (she was the only slave who could read, after all, but Sally stole the paper, pen, and ink). Yes, she impersonated Miss Liza (she was the only slave who could pass, but it was actually Canny’s idea). Then, too, Antigua’s parents were just as instrumental as Sophie, and they were involved in planning every detail of the escape from laying low on the plantation to providing the money they had saved. Moreover, the Creature tells Sophie he has brought her back in the past to play a specific role in the story, so he too deserves credit. I just don’t think it’s a criticism that holds up on closer analysis.
I’m sure Nina has some reservations, but I’ll let her voice them, and then respond accordingly. And, of course, I would love to hear from other readers, too. Anybody managed to read this one yet?
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at email@example.com
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