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.