The Freedom Maze, Delia Sherman

Historical fiction is about as likely to find a place onto my bookshelf as a biography about a celebrity or politician, a treatise on war, anything written by Cesar Milan or a fashion magazine (which is to say, not likely At All – I have firm rules about the dryness and maturity of my reading selection). These sorts of books are, to me, the literary version of eating my vegetables – they’re good for me, and on occasion, the right chef can tempt my palate – but I would much rather be bathing in a caramel-coated candy wonderland of witty women and sheepishly well-meaning men. And maybe magic, depending on my mood.

That being said, I am a slave to John Scalzi’s taste, and I put The Freedom Maze on my kindle with the firm belief that I would always have something more entertaining to read. I mean, it’s history, and worse (for a born and bred Northerner, like myself), it’s about the South. How could I possibly find anything redeeming about it?

(In case you don’t know, in New England, we’re brought up with an embarrassingly ignorant sense of our own superiority over people living in The South or That Awful Los Angeles. I really didn’t question it until I moved to That Awful Los Angeles myself and found that it had much to redeem itself. Also, my grandfather’s from Tennessee, not to mention my father-in-law’s family, so it’s hard to completely toe the party line there either…)

Anyway, it really didn’t matter in the least, because I was never going to get around to reading it when I had so many other books to consider….but then I got a new kindle for Christmas, and I wanted to download just about everything I hadn’t read yet, and there was The Freedom Maze, a children’s book I should at least try to read before Black History Month, or at least Martin Luther King Jr Day…

Also, I remembered this excerpt from Sherman’s interview on Scalzi’s “The Big Idea:”

I’d been wanting to write something about a girl who wasn’t perky, who wasn’t resourceful, who wasn’t particularly outgoing, who was shy and reserved and not very worldly.  I’d been a girl like that, and I couldn’t be the only one in the world.  Surely the others would like to read a book where they got to have adventures, too.

And I thought, nobody wants to admit to being that girl – we all want to be the version of ourselves we imagine as we’re falling asleep at night – but in reality, many of us are timid, sheltered, and clueless about what to do if we ended up, without warning, on a plantation in 1860, mistaken for a slave.

Sophie began her third week in the past in a fog of misery. Everything that had been difficult when she’d thought she’d be going home soon got ten times harder as she lost hope. (loc 2546 kindle ed)

This book was a slow starter for me, what with my resistance to learning any more about US history than I absolutely had to cranked to eleven. It wasn’t until I was half-way through that the story finally began to get under my skin. I started to imagine what it might have been like to have read this book when I was in the fourth or fifth grade, learning, as Sherman eloquently put it to Scalzi, “….about how plantations were run and how slaves lived and the lengths men and women who believed themselves to be good Christians and honorable people went to, trying to justify owning other men and women.”

We still live, however much we may deny or ignore it, in a time when skin can denote certain privilege. The whole world has a complicated relationship with race, and with its history and struggles for equality, not just under the law, but in the hearts of all people.  I still remember the uncomfortable itch, while waiting at a train station in rural Japan, of how different I felt, of how people glanced at me out of the corner of their eye, or, in the case of some young children, blatantly examined me – tall, light-haired, blue eyed. It wasn’t  offensive, more an act of curiosity, but it gave me a previously unrealized accounting of how much I took for granted what I had always believed to be the ordinariness of the color of my skin.

Sherman’s book could be, for another child, the same life changing experience as Jane Elliott’s “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” experiment was for me when my teacher first introduced it in the seventh grade. (If you don’t know about this experiment, I recommend Googling Elliott’s work, although I think the reality won’t fully sink unless you’ve experienced it, with all its gut-wrenching, humiliating, humbling realizations.) It’s difficult to teach degradation if you haven’t experienced it, and it’s even harder to imagine that you might be the kind of person who could have owned slaves, or turned Jews over to the Nazis, or subjugated another civilization…unless you start to recognize that the tiniest power over another human being could be intoxicating, might keep you safe, may even go virtually unnoticed by you, the keeper of said power. It’s a slippery slope, but thanks to writers like Sherman, there are places to start regaining and teaching necessary perspective.

For more about Delia Sherman, check her out at: http://www.sff.net/people/kushnerSherman/Sherman/

For more book recommendations/interviews from John Scalzi, go to: http://whatever.scalzi.com/ and search for “The Big Idea”

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