The Freedom Maze: a different sort of slavery-time alternate history

Delia Sherman's alternate history The Freedom Maze is really nothing like the contemporary and mythology-infused fantasy she is best known for, except that, as with Sherman's other books, the story here is subtle, nuanced, uncomfortable and brave.

It's 1960: Sophie Fairchild is 13, and her parents have just divorced. Her father has moved to New York, and her mother has moved to New Orleans to learn to be a CPA. Sophie has been sent to her mother's family estate, the last remaining corner of a huge plantation that once boasted hundreds of slaves and hundreds of acres.

Isolated and sorrowing, Sophie spends her thirteenth summer prowling the bayou and the overgrown maze her ancestors planted, avoiding her grandmama's wrath and dodging the issues of race that seem to be everywhere, in the midst of the civil rights movement's great surge.

But in the bayou and in the maze, there is a voice, a spirit or a haint, and it promises to take her for an adventure. Sophie has read that sort of book, has pined for magic wardrobes and Narnia, and off she trots, excited to have been transported back to slavery times, thrilled to see what awaits her.

But almost immediately, Sophie is taken for a slave by her ancestors, first accused of thieving and then assumed to be the unmentionable daughter of a disgraced and distant son who couldn't keep his hands off the chattels. And so Sophie is a slave, and she assumes that this must be her adventure, to experience slavery as it had been, to meet with her ancestors, to come to some greater understanding. Sophie, passive Sophie, sits back and waits for her adventure.

But Sophie's life in slavery is not an adventure. It's a misery, and a hardship, and an education, and as terrible as it is, it's not without its bright spots of camaraderie and even flashes of sweetness.

Gradually, Sophie stops thinking of it as an adventure. Her old life slips away. She forgets. She is a slave -- not a time-travelling kid on an adventure, but the slave everyone takes her for. And then the story truly begins.

The Freedom Maze isn't like other, similar stories, stories like Octavia Butler's tour-de-force Kindred. Sherman's antebellum story exposes a wide sweep through a narrow aperture, where the arbitrary nature of race and ownership, kindred and love, are illuminated in the harsh seeking glare of an adolescent's coming of age.

The Freedom Maze


  1. Delia Sherman and Ellen Kushner, who often write together, are both splendid writers (The Swordspoint books are one of my favorite fantasy series – low magic, high intrigue stuff). I’m looking forward to reading this!

  2. The difference between narrative (especially Western narrative) and reality is always interesting.  Most people wouldn’t read stories where just normal life happens since you’ve already got a life: people want the extraordinary,  and a story arc that makes sense and ties off loose ends.  In Iain Banks’ collection “State of the Art” there’s a great story about an alien, who hasn’t any experience with fiction, coming to Earth and discovering that his internal model of reality is starting to follow the pattern of a narrative whereas it didn’t before.  The Dr. Who canon’s “Land of Fiction” idea (episode “The Mind Robber” and the brilliant novel “Conundrum”) takes the idea even further: in this dimension if you start becoming a fictional version of yourself if you get mentally lazy and keep following a plotline.  You then become a puppet of The Author and, through his market surveys, The Audience – Those Who Must Be Amused.

    The thing with Time Travel or other travelogue stories is that, in reality it would be mostly washing dishes or being a slave as most people’s lives anywhere are going to be humdrum or awful.  That’s why they’re probably ready stories about *your* reality and the amazing adventures to be had therein.  This is why everyone decides, despite the odds against it, they’re the re-incarnation of Napoleon and not foot soldier #15832 in one of his armies or, even more likely, a starving French Peasant.  Again from Dr. Who, in the novel “Set Piece” Ace gets stuck in Ancient Egypt for years.  Nothing extraordinary is going on; she’s just an oddly-combat-capable woman with no other particular applicable life skills living in the suburbs of Memphis.  What’s she going to retire on?  She gets a place in someone’s retinue as a novelty guard but there’s nothing to guard against so she ends up doing judo flips as party tricks.  Being the sort of Adventure Junkie that you pretty well have to be to be a Companion, she starts to go mad in this environment.

    In Jack Vance’s Anome series can be viewed as one long commentary on the whole, actually prosaic nature of  life.  The protagonist infiltrates an alien slave camp and just ends up being a slave.  He highjacks a starship and just ends up stuck in orbit for months due to the impossibility of working alien controls.  History is happening all around him but he doesn’t influence it. Even if you’re living through extra-ordinary times you probably just end up with a bit-part like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

    Twice in my life I’ve fallen into capital “A” Adventures and one of them could even have been called a bit of genre fiction.  I found that fiction gave me an overall framework to work within that the other, non-Fan, people around me were sorely lacking.  They were paralysed by the lack of analogy with anything in their lives.  On the other hand, I had to be very careful about the differences between Narrative and Reality:  there are more loose ends than connecting threads; happy endings are unlikely as Endings are in general; people exposed to constant danger always get combat fatigue and just stop moving; the gun above the mantel in Act I isn’t there because it’s going to be used in Act II, it’s just there at random; and Lawyers.  The last is most important as the Evil Mastermind isn’t going to send assassins after you or try and shoot it out with you if you obtain an important piece of evidence against him.  He’ll just dump lawyers on you.  Scientology, for one, understands this very well.

    1. I REALLY like your comment.  Just wanted you to know it. I too had a capital “A” Adventure and I realized that I watching or reading other’s adventures helps on one hand, but what I really wanted to talk to people who had lived actual adventures.
      Written adventures have a thru line and a writer chooses what happens next. In real life you can only choose how to respond to what happens next.

      I remember one thing I loved about Pulp Fiction was how random things happen that aren’t planned. Like you are in the bathroom when the guy comes back to the apt.

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