Louisiana, 1960. Shortly after her parents' divorce, thirteen-year-old Sophie Martineau gets ditched at her frail-yet-domineering grandmother's house for the summer, where she is expecting boredom, exasperation, and more boredom. But then, Sophie makes a wish, and it's granted:
Sophie held out The Time Garden. "I want to be like Ann and Roger and Eliza. I want to travel through time and have grand adventures and brothers and sisters and have everybody love me."
The room was very still. "That a wish?" the Creature asked solemnly.
Sophie was in no mood to be cautious. "Yes," she said. "It's a wish."
After making the wish, she finds herself in the same room, the same house, wearing the same clothes and glasses... but it's 1860. And as she's wet and muddy, barefoot, and tanned from the summer sun, it's immediately assumed that she's a slave.
She's a slave with the Fairchild nose, most likely the illegitimate daughter of the not-yet-returned Prodigal Son, but a slave nonetheless. It isn't long before Sophie learns that her family's beliefs about people of color aren't based in reality, and that the "Good Old Days" before the "War of Northern Aggression" weren't so good for everyone.
Even "good" and "kind" slaveowners, the ones who don't believe in whippings, are still, you know, slaveowners, and even if slaves are aware that their situation could be a whole lot worse, they're still aware that they're still, you know, slaves. Sophie's wished herself into an adventure, but it's the likes of which Edward Eager's protagonists could never have imagined...
While I loved it—and was hooked from the first page—The Freedom Maze isn't going to be for everyone. It's a quieter, slower-moving coming-of-age story than you'd expect from the plotline, and it's more about character development and the creation of a multi-layered, rich depiction of a time and place than about Big Action or Big Drama (not to say that there isn't any).
Descriptions of a working, pre-Civil War plantation; the relationships between slaves, and between slaves and their owners; the speech patterns and dialect; the depiction of a complicated religious and mythological belief system; from all of that and more, as I read, I was convinced that Delia Sherman must have done a boatload of research for this book*. That made the complete lack of infodumps all the more impressive: even when Sophie gets a crash-course in plantation life via some of the younger slaves, Sherman doesn't use that opportunity to give her readers a lecture—instead, she cuts away from the scene. I loved that. I also loved that, at the end, [SPOILER] Sherman avoided any possibility of the It Was All A Dream trope. It happened, full stop. [END SPOILER]
There are some aspects of the book that will be contentious**. The major one is this: Sophie is a white protagonist in a story about slavery, and some readers will see her as a White Savior. I didn't. While she certainly had a hand in many of the story's turning points, and there were instances of her "saving" another character, A) those moments had a whole lot more to do with Sophie's modern frame of reference/ignorance of life in 1860 than her skin color, B) rather than independently coming up with A Perfect Plan, she worked with others to achieve her goals, and C) she never tries to show anyone (slave or slaveowner) the Error of Their Ways.
My other argument against her White Savior-dom comes far enough along in the book that it could be viewed as a [SPOILER]. So read the rest of this paragraph at your own risk. About halfway through the story, Sophie forgets that she's from the future. (I assumed that the Creature magicked her, but it could probably also be argued that it's a psychological block of some sort.) From that point on, for the rest of her time in 1860, she fully believes that she belongs in 1860. It's not an adventure. From her perspective, this is—and always has been—her life. [END SPOILER]
Good stuff. I'm only sorry that it's taken me so long to pick it up.
*An assumption that was validated when I read her Author's Note at the end.
**After writing this, I looked around, and the conversation in this comments section is a good example of the debate.
Book source: ILLed through my library.