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.