The Freedom Maze, and the snap of the real

by Sherwood Smith

Verisimilitude—authenticity—authority. Plausibility and credibility. Truth.

So much is written about the books in whose fictions we find truth so strongly that we willingly not only suspend belief, but tuck the fiction away among our own life memories.

So much has been written on how and why it happens . . .  and here I go, adding to the flow.

What makes a book real? Injecting realism is usually the first answer, I suspect, but it’s never been satisfactory for all. Back in 1750, Samuel Johnson ranted about how it wasn’t useful or appropriate for the writer to imitate actuality, in Rambler.

And that’s been a sticking point ever since, in books and film. I lose interest fast in a fictive piece that plods in a semblance of realtime, including each bite chewed and swallowed, every visit to the rest room, the process of choosing and donning clothing, the hunt for the car keys. I think the realistic detail that makes the scene resonate with experience is important, but as important is constructing convincing states of mind behind behaviors. I say that, but I’m aware that many readers won’t recognize certain states of mind—they haven’t the experience—and others won’t care about the circumstances of those states of mind.

Over the decades I’ve seen critics, social scientists, and psychologists who do literary studies write variations on the fact that the fiction that sticks is about conflict between humans—the quest for dominance, whether it’s political, social, psychological, or sexual.

I’m not willing to buy that as the primary goal—I know that I read for a lot of reasons, including discovery, the sense of the sublime, laughter, and imagining experiences that I could never have, and which do not include dominating my fellow being.

But I do think that most of us desire the snap of the real; we read things we would like to experience, but also things we do not want to experience. In both situations, we have to be convinced for the length of the tale that it is real, and how much of our reading experience is heightened by the knowledge that the author might have some kind of associated experience?

We bring to any book not only our critical faculties, but our experience. A book set in Los Angeles that has a high speed car chase down the 405 late in the afternoon is going to make me laugh, and toss me out of the story, whereas a reader who has never experienced L.A. traffic is going to be gripped by the chase’s verisimilitude. Some readers will be brought to the book by the fact that the writer was a highway patrol officer who one presumes had plenty of real life experience of high speed chases.

That brings me to Delia Sherman’s  The Freedom Maze. The book’s sense of verisimilitude gripped me by the  chitlins. How much authority do I have? I remember being a junior high student, I remember life in 1960, I read the same books Sophie did (and reacted the same way), but I have never been to New Orleans, nor have I heard the various dialects that have developed there. I’ve read some history about that region, but not to the extent that I’ve studied, say, Western Europe during the 17th Century. I do not have ancestors who lived in the south.

Since the book just came out, I’m trying to avoid spoiling it, but what grabbed me from the beginning was the way that junior-high aged Sophie Martineau was drawn into her time travel adventure: she found herself betrayed by two important elements in her life, her reading, and her identity.

Sophie’s parents broke up, and in 1960, when that happened, kids stayed with the mother pretty much all the time. But Sophie’s relationship with her mother is difficult. Like many women of the time, Sophie’s mother uses guilt and obligational gratitude as a means to control her child. Sophie’s solace has been books, especially fantasy.

So when she is taken against her will to her grandmother’s dilapidated estate near New Orleans for the summer, Sophie makes an idle wish to a strange creature whom she assumes will behave like magical creatures do in fantasies . . . and instead of being propelled back in time as a daughter of the Fairchild estate, she is taken by the people as a runaway slave. Sophie is astonished. She’s white—she is a Fairchild! Well, yes, so to speak . . . everyone around her assumes that she’s a Fairchild because her father was attracted to female slaves. Which puts her very low on the social spectrum.

Her first day—her first week—is just as hideous as you can imagine, but when Sophie’s had enough and makes her wish to go back, nothing happens. And won’t, until she fulfills her purpose. Which she is not told.

The way that Sherman details Sophie’s life, the people she meets and develops relationships with, and the sometimes harrowing results, kept me reading far too long into the night, but what shifted the book from good to brilliant for me was the end. There were so many ways it could have gone, from the expected ending according to the old fantasies, to a more postmodern approach. Sophie’s adventure ends in a way that resonated for me with the history of those she’d come to identify with, with all the emotional fallout. There are consequences, from plot to emotional that Sherman takes the time to explore.

I suppose there will be readers for whom this evocation of New Orleans in 1960 and in 1860 will not be convincing, and there will be readers who will look askance on anything written by a person who is not a descendant of slaves. I found it so compelling that I am still thinking over its issues of identify, including what is adulthood and what is childhood (and who decides it), two weeks later. The book was eighteen years in the making—I think it shows.



The Freedom Maze, and the snap of the real — 8 Comments

  1. C: the structure is definitely like that of Kindred in the time travel sense, though in the latter she makes return trips, and plans for them like an adult. Also, she’s black, and Sophie is white. There are also tone issues, as one is for young readers, and the other adult.

    But the two have something in common, which is that the persons of color have all the emotional agency, even if political power is in the hands of the slave-owners. A better parallel might be Nnedi Okorafor’s recent YA Akata Witch (which I hope is going to be a series), though this one takes place in Nigeria, but again, persons of color have the agency.

  2. It’s funny how the first half of this dovetails with what I was thinking just yesterday. One of my neighbors was watching Nigerian soaps (unless they were movies; I’ll admit that I really can’t tell any difference), and there were advertisements on for some other soap opera/movie, which consisted of DRAMA-filled bits of chases and fights and go-back-to-the-village-and-find-that-guy-who-got-you-pregnant and no-we-can’t-be-together, all of it glued together by frequent voiceovers repeating, “True story. True story. TRUE STORY!” It struck me as tabloid, exaggerated, and, in the worst possible sense, fictional.

    I found myself wanting to shake that voiceover guy, whose tone implied that of course this was more fascinating than anything else on television because it was TRUE, and tell him, “I don’t care if it’s based on things that actually happened; that doesn’t make it a good story. As far as my leisure activities go, I’d rather have a well-told lie than a luridly overdone reality.” (Perhaps especially because in a work of fiction, care is (usually) taken to ensure that it is internally consistent, whereas that’s much less common when working from life, and the fact is that life doesn’t always make sense.)

    Yes, I recently finished I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and enjoyed it, and a number of the biographies that come out of WWII are fascinating. But I’m much more likely to re-read To Kill a Mockingbird.

  3. Yes: I think the strangest conglomeration of “true” and fiction is reality TV. It seems to partake of the worst of both, and yet people still watch it.

  4. I saw X-FACTOR for the first time ever this weekend. Aside from theway-over-the-top production values, applied like spackle to hide the flaws of resolutely mediocre singers, what struck me was how the hosts and the entire structure was set up to maximize tension and misery. Not only did the contestants have to stand up there while they ‘lost’, but the moment their loserdom was announced the mike is thrust forward and the question is: “How do you feel about going down in ignonimy, Lindsay?”

  5. This book is extremely high on my list of books I want to read.

    we read things we would like to experience, but also things we do not want to experience

    A book gives you a chance to try on a life, any kind of life. Different roles. Different genders, ages, social backgrounds. Different character traits, different experiences. And you can _safely_ explore those things, and compare your own choices – how would I have tackled this? How well do my own reactions serve me? Is this a path I do or do not wish to take in my own life?