Slavery, liberty, racism and the lessons of history: An Appreciation of Delia Sherman’s The Freedom Maze, a 2012 Prometheus Award winner for Best Novel

To highlight the Prometheus Awards’ four-decade history and make clear what makes each winner deserve recognition as notable pro-freedom sf/fantasy, the Libertarian Futurist Society is presenting weekly Appreciations of past award-winners. Our anniversary series was launched in 2019 – 40 years after the first Prometheus Award was presented – starting with appreciation/reviews of the earliest winners in the original Best Novel category, and continuing in chronological order.
Here’s the latest Appreciation for Delia Sherman’s The Freedom Maze, one of two 2012 Prometheus Award winners for Best Novel:

By Michael Grossberg
Some stories teach the young and remind their elders of core truths about civilization, justice and humanity – such as the goodness of liberty and the evils of slavery.
One of the best is Delia Sherman’s The Freedom Maze, a young-adult historical fantasy novel that focuses on an adolescent girl of 1960 who is magically sent back in time to 1860 when her family owned slaves on a Louisiana plantation.

Sophie, 13, explores a maze while spending the summer at her grandmother’s old Bayou house, part of an old pre-Civil-War plantation, and makes an impulsive wish for escape and grand adventure. Thanks to a mysterious and tricky spirit, her wish is granted and she finds herself unexpectedly stranded a century into the past.

Mistaken by her ancestral family for a light-skinned slave fathered by a plantation owner, she endures great hardships, commiserates with others suffering worse, works in the household and the sugar-cane fields, and sees the other slaves demonstrating their humanity in the face of incredible adversity.

In the process, over months in the past without any hope or way to return to the present, the plucky girl confronts the humiliations and horrors of slavery at first hand, discovers her own family’s checkered past as plantation owners and as slaves, and comes to appreciate the values of honor, respect, courage, and personal responsibility.

As historical fiction, the story is well researched and rings true to the dark era of slavery while challenging stereotypes of race, identity and history.

As one of a handful of Young Adult novels to win the Prometheus Award for Best Novel, TheFreedom Maze has special appeal for teenagers and other young readers – and can be read easily and appreciated by older children.

Although geared somewhat to children in avoiding some of the institution of slavery’s more grisly extremes, the novel does not whitewash the past or its cruelties while exploring and affirming the universal value of personhood and, implicitly, self-ownership.

Sherman also explores the closely linked themes of family, womanhood and courage in her emotionally powerful coming-of-age novel, at about 250 pages easily readable and highly recommended for younger readers (especially grades five to eight).

Yet, libertarians of all ages can take Sherman’s searing and emotionally powerful indictment of slavery to heart.

Slavery, like extreme forms of tyranny, ranks among the greatest evils possible that human beings can inflict on other people from the perspective of libertarianism – a close cousin and intellectual descendant of the classical liberalism of the 1700s and 1800s (from John Locke to John Stuart Mill and Wilhelm von Humboldt), which helped inspire the Abolitionist campaign to end slavery worldwide. Along with the earlier Revolutionary movement for freedom and independence of the Founding Fathers, the anti-slavery movement of the Abolitionists is viewed as one of the most successful mass-appeal libertarian movements in American history – and The Freedom Maze is an eloquent reminder of a great evil that thankfully is now largely gone worldwide.

(Note: Delia Sherman, an American fantasy writer and editor, also won the Andre Norton Award for The Freedom Maze, a 2011 nominee for the James Tiptree Jr. Award, and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for her novel The Porcelain Dove.

Delia Sherman (Creative Commons license)

The latter work is one of three novels for adults – along with Through a Brazen Mirror and In the Fall of the Kings (co-written with her wife Ellen Kushner) – Sherman has written in the Fantasy of Manners genre.)

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: A 40thAnniversary Celebration and appreciation of the next novel to be recognized with a Prometheus Award: Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, the other 2012 winner for Best Novel.

* See related introductory essay about the LFS’ 40thanniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

* Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit volunteer association of libertarian sf/fantasy fans and freedom-lovers. Libertarian futurists believe cultural change is as or more vital as political change (and often more fun!) in achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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