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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The Freedom Maze

Nancy Werlin first brought THE FREEDOM MAZE to our attention in the comments to the 2012 Newbery Reading List thread.  I hunted a copy down, read it, and loved it as much as Nancy did.  My gut instinct was that it was a top five sort of book, but as I shared the book with various people my response was tempered by their mixed to negative responses.  I’ve just reread the book and find it even more impressive a second time around, so much, in fact, that it jumps back into the thick of things.  For me, this novel belongs in the conversation every bit as much as OKAY FOR NOW, A MONSTER CALLS, DEAD END IN NORVELT, or any other strong contending novel.

It passes Nina’s first page test with distinguished writing evident in the first several paragraphs.

Sophie Martineau looked out the window of her mother’s 1954 Ford station wagon and watched her life slide behind her into the past.

It was raining.  It rained a lot in May in Louisiana, but Sophie couldn’t help feeling this rain was personal.  It was bad enough to be saying goodbye to her friends and her school and the house she’d grown up in to spend the summer stuck out in the bayou with Grandmama and Aunt Enid, knowing she’d be coming back to a different neighborhood and a different school in the fall.  Doing it in the rain was just rubbing her nose in it.

They drove past her best friend Diana Roget’s house.  In the wet, the big stucco house was grim and uninviting–just like Mrs. Roget after Papa up and moved to New York.  Once the divorce was final, she hadn’t even allowed Diana to come over any more and Sophie wasn’t invited to Galveston as she had been every summer since third grade.  It was like Mrs. Roget thought divorce was catching, like cooties.  Although she’d denied it, Sophie suspected Diana thought so, too.

From these opening paragraphs we can see two features that will ultimately mark this book as one of the most distinguished contributions to literature–perhaps the most distinguished.  First, the setting: not only is there a rich description of the physical landscape, but Sherman has captured the millieu of the Louisiana bayou in both 1860 and 1960.  And second, the character of Sophie, a full-bodied characterization with real growth and change, who ought to win the hearts of readers every bit as much as Doug or Connor.  The remaining literary elements–plot, style, and theme–are equally formidable.

I reviewed this book for Horn Book, and it was a challenging one to write.  I’m typically able to write my reviews in about 200 words, 20 less than my limit.  But this is a book where I wanted to double my limit because there was just so much to discuss.

It’s 1960, and thirteen-year-old Sophie Martineau has just been deposited by her imperious, newly divorced mother at their ancestral home in the Louisiana bayou, once the site of a grand sugar plantation, to spend the summer with her spinster aunt and bedridden grandmother. She soon gets lost in the estate’s overgrown maze, meets a Creature that is equal parts Psammead and Brer Rabbit, and is transported back in time one hundred years. With her summer tan, Sophie is mistaken for a slave but granted a favored position in the Big House. As she experiences the moral injustices of slavery, however, she falls out of favor and is reassigned to the quarters. After she has played a dangerous but critical role in the novel’s climax, the Creature whisks her back to 1960, where she must research the end of the story. In doing so, she finds the courage to defy her own mother and reconnect with her father. The story is quite ambitious: not only does Sherman pay homage to classic fantasy tropes, she vividly evokes two historical settings, turning a glaring light on the uncomfortable attitudes and practices of earlier eras. While Sherman has Sophie solving too many of the slaves’ problems (the white savior motif), her coming of age nevertheless resonates with moral outrage and righteous indignation.

I’d like to recant the criticism of Sophie solving too many problems.  Because she doesn’t.  Yes, she found the hideaway for soon-to-be-runaway slave Antigua.  Yes, she forged the note (she was the only slave who could read, after all, but Sally stole the paper, pen, and ink).  Yes, she impersonated Miss Liza (she was the only slave who could pass, but it was actually Canny’s idea).  Then, too, Antigua’s parents were just as instrumental as Sophie, and they were involved in planning every detail of the escape from laying low on the plantation to providing the money they had saved.  Moreover, the Creature tells Sophie he has brought her back in the past to play a specific role in the story, so he too deserves credit.  I just don’t think it’s a criticism that holds up on closer analysis.

I’m sure Nina has some reservations, but I’ll let her voice them, and then respond accordingly.  And, of course, I would love to hear from other readers, too.  Anybody managed to read this one yet?

Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at


  1. Nina Lindsay says:

    Well.. I have serious reservations which will be hard for me to defend without my copy, and another re-read even. My copy’s at work for the long weekend, so I don’t know when I’ll be able to address this fully. But basically, I find an underlying major flaw in the perspective of the character, and the perspective the author offers the reader. Though the whole story is supposed to be aout Sophie understanding what it’s like to be a slave, I never get the sense that she is doing anything but playing at it. The very ending, where she “walks in Antingua’s shoes” (I wish I could have my copy) feels horribly simplistic.

    This is hard, because I agree Sherman shows technically good writing here…but it’s her underlying assumption that is problematic.

  2. I am surprised you both feel the writing is good, because on a line-by-line basis, I wasn’t impressed at all. In fact, I couldn’t finish the novel.

    I don’t even like the first sentence. (The story is set in 1960, but the first establishing date we see is 1954 which kind of clouds the picture.)

    I found the prose repetitive, wordy, and awkward, even in the passage you submit as an example of distinguished writing. This is not my idea of a smoothly-written sentence: “It was bad enough to be saying goodbye to her friends and her school and the house she’d grown up in to spend the summer stuck out in the bayou with Grandmama and Aunt Enid, knowing she’d be coming back to a different neighborhood and a different school in the fall.”

    Once I noticed how often the same words were used over and over again in the same sentence or pargraph (in/in, like/like, uninviting/invited) I couldn’t stop seeing it everywhere in the text.

    I probably should go back and finish this novel before coming down so hard on it, but I really found the prose a tough go.

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Yes, Nina, I found that I myself needed a reread of this book–not only because of the provocative treatment of a difficult subject, but also because the layers of depth and complexity. There are actually two phases to Sophie’s time slip. In the first, she retains all her memories of her former life in 1960, and during this phase she is very much viewing this as a temporary adventure, that the Creature will show up at any minute to whisk her back to her own time. But when the Creature does show up and she asks if the adventure is over, he replies that it has just begun. This marks the second phase of the time slip: Sophie gradually loses her memories of 1960 and for all intents and purposes becomes a mixed-race slave in 1860. When she gets ready to pass for white in the final escape, the transformation is complete, and that is why she can think–and completely believe–this: I can do this . . . It’s just playacting. I do it all the time. I pretend to be stupid. I pretend not to mind when I’m treated like a little dog. I pretend to be a yard child. All I have to do now is pretend to be a white girl. A white girl raised to think that the whole world exists to polish her boots. A white girl who thinks people can be property.

    Since you read the entire time slip as Sophie merely pretending to be a slave, then I can see how that last line would rankle, but I never read that last line as a comparison (i.e. that Sophie is comparing slavery to a domineering mother), but rather that Sophie had drawn inspiration from Antigua to make decisions in her own life, that her adventure had so completely changed her that she would never forget Antigua and her legacy.

    Peter, I don’t have a problem with the prose, either the way it flows, the sentence construction, or repeated words. I almost feel like you’re referencing grade school grammar rules (i.e. never begin a sentence with a conjunction, never use the word “said” as a dialogue tag, never use sentence fragments, never use run-on sentences), rules that are ignored by published writers more often than not. But I can relate to struggling with the novel, because in spite of the nifty plotting device of the time slip, this is essentially a character-driven piece with a leisurely pace, and I actually found that I could appreciate this book better the second time around.

  4. Jonathan, thank you for informing me that grammar rules are ignored by published writers more often than not. I never knew that!!! Actually, I couldn’t care less about “grade school grammar rules” in creating fiction. My problem is the awkward writing style…sentences that you sort of choke on if you try to read them aloud. Take that run-on, incomplete sentence I quoted above. Is there any reason for the inclusion of the words “to be”? And that’s just one example of many. Granted, I did not read the entire book and I probably should. If I end up liking it, I’ll come back and post my thoughts. For now, I’ll admit that the line about Sophie’s life “sliding into the past” was a nice bit of foreshadowing. See, I do have something positive to say about the book after all! : )

    P.S. Does anyone else think the girl on the dustjacket is wearing one of Nancy Drew’s outfits circa 1940?

  5. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Yes, but if you dislike that run-on sentence . . . well, have you read WHY WE BROKE UP? by Daniel Handler? :-)

    And, oh, very good eye, but Nancy Drew circa 1960, according to the cover artist.

  6. Er, yeah, I didn’t see any reference to grammar rules in Peter’s post; I think you put some words in his mouth. Critiquing the style is certainly within the realm of Newbery discussion. I wasn’t impressed by the quoted sentences either, but I haven’t been able to read this book yet.

    (P.S. Yeah, and Nancy Drew was 16/18. This girl is 13?)

  7. I admired tremendously what the author was doing with this book, but I found it difficult to buy into the idea that Sophie would completely forget her previous existence. I see humans as building on experience and, at first, in Sophie’s case, she is using what she knows negatively. That is, she brings her problematic attitudes to her experiences in the past, but instead of those changing IN the past, they change once she is back in the future and disappear completely in the past as she loses her memory of her future life. I understand that having her continue to bring those attitudes into the story going on in the past would have been problematic and perhaps impossible for the author, but having her forget them just didn’t work well for me. It certainly made it possible to create the story that took place in the past and make Sophie believable as she became part of that community and a player in the story, but it turned her into two basically separate characters. There is the Sophie of the 1950s who starts out racist, but evolves at the end as she is able remember her experiences in the past and grow from them. And then there is the Sophie in the past who has no past, so to speak. That is, she acts because through being a good person and because of a false memory, not because she has grown and learned and changed from the girl she was at the start of the time travel experience. This duality was difficult for me to resolve at the end.

    Hopefully this isn’t totally muddled and confused!

  8. 1960s I mean:)

  9. I should also say (anticipating Jonathan’s response:) that having her grow and change in the past through her experiences would also be problematic as it would then be indeed a white savior story. So I have no clue how the author could have done it without falling into this trope either.

  10. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Monica, totally muddled and very confused. I’m going to respond to your points, but since I don’t completely understand them then maybe you can offer some clarification if I’ve misread you.

    1. It wasn’t difficult for me to believe that Sophie lost her memory, especially the second time around when I noticed that it coincided with the Creature’s visit and just assumed that he had the power to take her memory away. But that’s an inference I made, and even if you believe it’s not a justified one, and seek to explain her memory less solely by the passage of time, then it certainly doesn’t require any more gullibility than the Ness does (i.e. that Connor both knows and doesn’t know that his mother is terminally ill).

    2. Sophie is very much a product of her time, and has clearly inherited the racist paradigm of her family, but she hasn’t internalized it yet. I’m not sure I would characterize her as racist simply because I believe racists are made rather than born, and while Sophie has not questioned her family’s attitudes, I don’t believe she has completely adopted them as her own. She’s at that pivotal point where she’s starting to question her mother’s attitude about everything, not just racism, and it wouldn’t take much of an event to serve as a catalyst for change because that’s what adolescents do: they question.

    3. Sophie begins to grow and change from the moment she slips back in time. She gives up the racist notions about African Americans before her memory is taken away. So the memory loss really doesn’t have anything to do with racism and whether or not it’s problematic in the story, but rather it takes away the safety net away. It allows her to experience the full horror of the story rather than merely pretending to be a slave. She can’t fall back on the knowledge that the Creature will intervene to save her and she can’t use her knowledge to her advantage later in the story (when she acclimates to being a field slave and conspires to help Antigua run away). I don’t think there is much growth and change in her attitudes after the memory loss, if there’s any change at all. I think that transformation is largely complete.

    4. Your last assertion makes absolutely no sense to me. I’m including a link here to a brief article on the white savior complex. Just to make sure we’re on the same page, can you read it and see if you agree, if there’s anything you would add or change?

    I don’t think THE FREEDOM MAZE fits this definition because Sophie’s role is no greater than the Creature’s or Africa’s or Ned’s or Canny’s or Sally’s role. I don’t understand how her character development, whether it takes place in the past or the present, has anything to do with it.

  11. The “character goes into the past and forgets her real life” situation is not an uncommon one in timeslip novels. Three that come immediately to mind where this is seen at least in part: Crazy Creek (Evelyn Sibley Lampman), The Devil’s Arithmetic (Jane Yolen), Charlotte Sometimes (Penelope Farmer).

  12. Jonathan, sure!

    1. Unfortunately I did not have the response you did to the magic the Creature did to do away with her memory. While I was able to completely buy into the time slip he caused I wasn’t able to do so with this. I find it completely different from Conor refusing to acknowledge his mother’s dying. This is about me the reader not Sophie the character. It has nothing to do with gullibility on either character’s part, but my (the reader’s) inability to suspend disbelief about this.

    2. I agree completely with you here. Evidently racist wasn’t the right word for Sophie so please forget I used it as I was simply focusing on her changing views regarding race im the course of the novel.

    3. I see what you are saying about losing the safety net, but it didn’t work for me, I kept wondering about what she remembered of her own life even as it sifted away. And then I was bothered that she didn’t remember it. I’d have done better I think if the memory loss was the result of a fall rather than magically induced.

    4. I was simply noting that I didn’t know how else the author could have done it without creating indeed the white savior issue you brought up in your Horn Book review, that is all.

  13. Wendy, thanks for reminding me of those!

  14. Jonathan Hunt says:

    1. Yes, I was speaking about the reader rather than the character. Specifically, what makes it easier for you, as a reader, to accept that Connor can know-but-not-know but not that Sophie can forget the past, whether magically or otherwise? I understand the one works and not the other one, but that in and of itself is not an argument. You’ve merely described yourself as a reader, but it does nothing to convince me that I should follow suit.

    3. I think losing the safety net is key to the story NOT becoming the white savior complex (i.e. Daughter of White Privilege Forsakes Racism to Become the Leader of All Black People Everywhere). That would have been a very dramatic transformation, but as written I think her character development is just right: dramatic, but not unbelievable. Again, I understand that it didn’t work for you, but that alone does nothing to convince me for or against this position.

    4. The review described the book as a white savior story because Sophie solved too many of the problems (not that we don’t expect that of a novel’s heroine), but now that I’ve noted that she does NOT solve all of the slaves’ problems, let alone most of them or single-handedly, if you want to continue to describe this as a white savior story then I’m afraid the burden of proving it as such falls squarely on your shoulders.

  15. Jonathan, I have no dog in this fight. I feel neither as negatively as Nina or as passionately enthused as you do about this book. There were things I thought worked and things that didn’t for me, Your post definitely got me thinking over what these were and then I made an attempt to articulate them here, clearly not very successfully. At any rate, I’m stopping now as I’m not prepared to get into an intense debate about it. Sorry.

  16. Jonathan Hunt says:

    No, I understand, and I have the advantage in this discussion, having recently reread the book with everything fresh in my mind. I appreciate that you chimed in as I still think this is a book that very few people have read. Bulletin, School Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly didn’t review the book, and I just don’t think it’s on the radar for most people. Hence, this post. I do like it an awful lot, and it may yet climb into my top five. THE NOTORIOUS BENEDICT ARNOLD and THE LEGEND OF THE KING were books I read late last year and they both climbed past KEEPER into my top five. In retrospect, I wish I had argued harder for those books here. But I don’t want to make the same mistake two years running.

  17. I will reread…but just to be clear, I did “get” the second phase of the time slip. It did not, however, fully convince me… There was a perpetual ego-centricism to Sophie’s POV that undercut my belief, esp in that last scene.

  18. Jonathan, you can recant your criticism all you want here, but we wouldn’t have published your review without that caveat. And I completely disagree with your statement that the criticism doesn’t hold up. I don’t have the time or engergy to go back and count, but there are numerous situations where Sophie is braver, cleverer, or more intrepid than the other enslaved people, children and grownups alike. My radar was alerted when she first stood up to … was it the son of the plantation owner, who was planning to rape her cousin. Then when it is Sophie who discovers the hidden room underground rather than people who had lived all their lives on the plantation and would have had years to find the hiding place– WAY too contrived. And that’s just two examples; there are more; but those two are enough for me.

    I did like the pacing of and the characterization in the novel. And I really liked the


    revelation that Sophie had a black ancester (I think that is a correct deduction). What will Sophie’s mother say?!

  19. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Thanks for chiming in, Martha. I don’t want to begin a heated and protracted debate this late in the game either; I just wanted to put it on the table, so to speak. I didn’t have a problem with the caveat because I did feel the need to telegraph the potentially controversial treatment of the subject. With two “white” slave books in JEFFERSON’S SONS and THE FREEDOM MAZE, it’s interesting that we both objected to one treatment, but not the other. Odd.

  20. Jonathan Hunt says:
  21. This finally came in for me at the library–there were several holds on several copies, which is great for an under-the-radar book! I was a little surprised to find that I had no real political or sociological-based objections to it. I concur with Jonathan’s second opinion that this is not a “white savior” book; the other characters are intelligent and resourceful enough that I left feeling they certainly could have solved their problems without Sophie there at all. In fact, several times they use her for their own purposes–it isn’t her saving them, it’s them using her to their benefit. And some of the objections above have easy logistical explanations. Sophie is the one who knows the right hiding place for Antigua because, with her special status, she’s the only one allowed in the garden maze–the other slaves comment on this. Sophie objects to the sexual harassment and abuse not because she is better or stronger, but because she comes from a world (a middle-class white world, in 1960) where that behavior isn’t acceptable–at least as far as she is aware, in her child’s naivete. That she comes from that world is frequently a trial for the other slaves, but occasionally it’s a blessing. It’s also clear that Sophie’s actions in these two major cases (when she’s groped at dinner and when she comes across the attempted rape) are not without consequences, since she does live in the antebellum south.

    On the other hand, like Peter, I didn’t find the writing to be excellent or distinguished. Good, but not distinguished. It wouldn’t have made my Newbery top ten, but I thought it was better than several of the other books that showed up on the lists.

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