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The Freedom Maze
Delia Sherman
Small Beer Press, 272 pages

The Freedom Maze
Delia Sherman
If any of Delia Sherman's work should be remembered, it should be The Porcelain Dove, a novel of intoxicating beauty. She has also contributed short fiction to such anthologies as Bending the Landscape and Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Changeling
SF Site Review: Through A Brazen Mirror
SF Site Review: The Essential Bordertown: A Traveller's Guide to the Edge of Faerie

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Trent Walters

My first encounter with Delia Sherman was her short story, "Walpurgis Afternoon," which first appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction. Ostensibly, it's the tale of a liberal woman trying to overcome her biases against the strange when a Victorian home pops into existence in her neighborhood. The owners are witches who dabble in artificial intelligence (or vice versa). Although the scientific aspects didn't play as well, the surreal aspects were cool. The deeper level seems to suggest the life and benefits of bringing people of alternative lifestyle into your life (and neighborhood). Delia Sherman's keen eye and ear for detail and the subtle deeper levels prove she is a writer well worth reading.

The Freedom Maze, from Big Mouth press (Gavin Grant and Kelly Link's line of children's books), captures some of that same eye and ear for detail:

  " 'Horses sweat,' Mama reminded [Sophie Martineau]. 'Ladies gently glow. I suppose you can open the window a crack. But put something over your hair, or the wind will blow it into a hooraw's nest.'

"Sophie's reflection in the window told her that her hair had already frizzed up like cotton candy. But she knew that arguing with that particular tone of voice was useless, so she tied a silk scarf around her head before rolling the window down all the way.

"Hot air hit her face like a sponge soaked in gas fumes and swamp water. Sophie thought wistfully of Papa's Cadillac, which had air-conditioning and padded cloth seat that didn't stick to your back like the Ford's [her mother's 1954 station wagon] woven plastic."


This passage sets up the frame story's conflict well. Sophie's mother is dropping her off at the Oak Cottage in Louisiana with her aunt and grandmother -- people Sophie doesn't particularly enjoy -- so that the mother is freed to pursue her accounting degree since the father has left the family. Sophie, on the cusp of becoming a woman, doesn't feel like she has any power over her life, and these women don't help.

Behind the Oak Cottage is a maze constructed out of tall shrubs. It is there that Sophie is first haunted by the Creature who taunts Sophie when she gets lost in the maze. As Sophie does her best to avoid doing what her grandmother tells her, she continues to bump into the trickster-like figure of the Creature who plays various tricks on Sophie. Nonetheless, a relationship sprouts between them. When her mother complains of the way she's dressed -- muddy and hair ratted up -- Sophie calls on the Creature with a wish for a time-traveling adventure just like in the book she read titled The Time Garden.

Unfortunately, the Creature, being a Trickster, takes her on an adventure that is more than she bargained for. She's thrust back to 1860 where, with her tan, she looks like a light-skinned slave, so her ancestors immediately turn her into one. Her first experience with an ancestor is to be accused of trying to steal a silver hairbrush. After she tries to explain her way out, they turn her into a house slave. Later, due to an attempt to protect another slave, she is thrust out into the fields.

Halfway through the narrative, I thought a tale like this could be improved if we can see how the transformation has changed the character -- more than a glimpse given the amount of time spent developing the opening. This was exactly what Sherman did. Sophie gradually loses track of her former self and becomes wholly a slave of the Civil War era, picking up the language and even forgetting who the Creature is (although this and her complete transformation does stretch credulity a bit). Clothes, service to others, and the past take on a new meaning for Sophie.

Other interesting aspects of the novel include the mention of Belle Watling in connection with the maze and also the novel's commentary on story. Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind is the prostitute who embarrasses the Southern confederate women but who saves the lives of their husbands. Why Belle Watling? Perhaps like Belle, who is at first considered the antithesis of a Southern Belle, Sophie becomes a proper Southern Belle (or at least more mature) after living life as a slave.

Here's the passage on story:

  "The Creature rolled its amber eyes 'You think I gots nothing to do but hang around here all day granting you wishes?' "

" 'They're not wishes,' Sophie said. 'They're questions.'

" 'Either way, I ain't going to answer 'em. You ain't got no part in that story no more.'

" 'Story?' Sophie was furious. 'That wasn't a story! It was real!'

" 'Of course it real.' The Creature was impatient. 'Still a story, though.' "


This is a novel worth checking out: a fine exemplar of a well-written children's book, or of the fantastic for fans of history and especially of the Civil War, reminiscent in ways of Octavia Butler's Kindred.

Copyright © 2012 Trent Walters

Trent Walters teaches science; lives in Honduras; edited poetry at Abyss & Apex; blogs science, SF, education, and literature, etc. at APB; co-instigated Mundane SF (with Geoff Ryman and Julian Todd) culminating in an issue for Interzone; studied SF writing with dozens of major writers and and editors in the field; and has published works in Daily Cabal, Electric Velocipede, Fantasy, Hadley Rille anthologies, LCRW, among others.

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