April 2, 2014

Book rec:* THE FREEDOM MAZE by Delia Sherman

 

This is such a good book.

I don’t remember how I managed to notice it;  unless I am being even more clueless than usual, which I admit is entirely possible, I don’t think it’s been waved around and shouted about much over here, which is a pity—do the British really think a YA fantasy novel about the American antebellum south isn’t of interest?  But it isn’t a YA fantasy novel about the American antebellum south, although it’s certainly that too—it’s a novel about what it is to be human.  Which is what all the best novels are about, including—and I know I’ve said this before but it bears repeating—the ones featuring fuzzy blue eight-legged methane-breathers.  Or a Louisiana sugar-cane plantation a hundred and fifty years ago, run by slave labour.

Thirteen-year-old Sophie’s parents have split up (very shocking in 1960 middle-class America) and her mother is taking her back to her family’s old home for the summer to get her out of the way.  Sophie’s mother’s family were very grand a hundred years ago, and the house where Sophie’s grandmother and aunt still live is on a remnant of the old plantation.  Sophie is miserable;  she’d already been outcast by her friends because of the divorce, and the back of beyond in the bayou is nearly the worst fate she can think of.  She explores the overgrown—and reputedly haunted—maze that had been part of the Big House’s garden in the plantation’s day.  And there she meets . . . a Creature.  “There’s no question that there’s strange things around Oak River,” says Sophie’s Aunt Enid, “and if they’re not ghosts, then they’re something mighty like.”

“I warn you,” says the Creature to Sophie, “I mighty powerful juju.  I sits at the doorway betwixt might be and is, betwixt was and will be, betwixt here and there. . . . ”

But Sophie, reckless in her unhappiness, and having perhaps reread E Nesbit and Edward Eager a little too often, wishes for an adventure.  “Adventures just come along natural with going back in time,” says the Creature.

And Sophie discovers that she’s back a hundred years.  When her ancestors, the Fairchilds, were plantation owners.  And what had been her bedroom in 1960 is the bedroom of the daughter of the family in 1860.  Who is understandably dismayed by the strange girl in it.  But Sophie, with her frizzy hair and her dark summer tan, is mistaken for a runaway slave.  And the only reason she isn’t flogged and dragged away in chains is because she is obviously a member of the family—she has the famous Fairchild nose.  She is, it is decided by Miss Liza’s parents, the daughter of Miss Liza’s rackety uncle—and one of his slaves.

Which makes Sophie a slave.  Which is not the sort of adventure she had in mind.

The plantation world is brought superbly to life, as are the people in it.  One of the things I found particularly effective is sheltered, white-girl 1960 Sophie having no idea what it means to be a slave:  that just meeting someone’s eyes because they’re speaking to you is uppity, that any answer at all may be the wrong answer, that it is perfectly acceptable to be expected to wait on table when you are half-sick with hunger yourself, that it is perfectly acceptable to be sent on another errand, and another errand after that when you’re exhausted—because you aren’t really human.  And that the white overseer is always right even when he’s wrong, and that a black slave doesn’t know more even when he does—because he’s a slave.

And what this grotesque imbalance of power does to both sides of this criminally bad bargain.

There are so many neat, tucked-away little details in this book, of plot, character and serendipity, none of which I can tell you—but I can tell you to look out for them.  I’ve discovered one or two more just glancing through it now to get the names and quotations right—and many of these apparently casual bits and pieces come together beautifully for the climax and denouement.

Give yourself a treat:  read it.

* * *

* I read a book over supper last night.^  It was thrilling.  I always used to read over meals unless Story in Progress was giving me an unusually ferocious time;  but in the last six and a half years if I’m not wrestling with a recalcitrant Story I’m mostly writing the blog at night.  Hey.  More book recs on the new blog system.  Yessssssss.

^ I was also up way too late as a result.  Sigh.  Well, no system is perfect.

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