Author: Delia Sherman
Publication Information: Big Mouth House, hardcover, 2011
Genre: YA Historical Fiction/Time Slip
Plot: Sophie is a gawky 13-year-old in 1960 Louisiana whose parents recently divorced. Even worse, her father appears to have left the state without saying goodbye. While her mother recovers from being ostracized by friends and tries to improve her job skills, she leaves Sophie to spend the summer at her childhood home on the bayou in all that remains of the Fairchild family’s once grand sugar plantation.
Sophie has read all the right books (Five Little Peppers, Story of the Amulet, The Time Garden, The Witch of Blackbird Pond) so when she sees a maze she follows the mysterious voice (a Natterjack-type creature) and winds up going back in time 100 years. Tan, unkempt, barefoot and frizzy-haired, she is mistaken for a slave (albeit the illegitimate daughter of the ne’er do well younger son, conveniently out of town) and put to work. At first, her ability to read (dangerous for a slave at that time) to her alleged grandmother (although the relationship is not discussed) saves her from a job in the fields, although life as a house slave is long and tedious. But when her resemblance to the spoiled daughter of the house becomes embarrassing and she is framed for theft, Sophie is sent to work under the brutal overseer in the sugar fields and learns what hard work is. Bitter at the betrayal of her parents in real life and of the Fairchild relatives in the past, Sophie learns how to control her temper and steer a safe path between the capricious white owners and the hierarchal slave society (150 slaves at the peak of Oak River Plantation’s glory) where there is resentment because of her lighter skin, the half-remembered stories she tells of automobiles and black people playing instruments in public for pay, which are dismissed as nonsense. Her hard work and loyalty win her friends among the slaves (and she learns some useful household skills that will be useful back in present-day New Orleans), and it is ultimately, it is Sophie’s ingenuity that saves the day.
What I liked: Sherman magically brings her characters to life, from understandably sulky Sophie and her self-centered mother in the sticky 1960 summer, to her slave-owning ancestors and the various slaves who befriend her a hundred years earlier, particularly Africa (who we later learn was raped by Sophie’s five time great-grandfather) and her daughter Canada. The depiction of life on a busy plantation is well done and fascinating. The time travel aspect is handled well (there is nothing worse than bad time travel). Naturally, an author who likes E. Nesbit and Edward Eager provides a moral lesson and rightly so. Sophie matures and her attitude toward black people is changed by her experiences – the reader knows, although Sophie does not, about the civil rights movement that is about to change the South in the 1960s. Short term, Sophie realizes she can assert herself with her domineering mother; long term - maybe another book? But sometimes a book is so well done it needs no sequel.
What I disliked: Nothing to dislike - I really enjoyed this book! Naturally, I hated the spoiled white girl, Miss Liza, who throws things at the slaves, even planting an item to get Sophie accused of stealing. Even “old Missy” – the patrician grandmother of Oak River, who is otherwise a humane and gracious mistress – is willing to believe the slave is lying and banish her to the rough work in the sugar fields. But the worst character of all is Beaufort Waters, Miss Liza’s suitor, who is eager to court the heiress while groping Sophie as she serves the family at dinner and later impregnating an unwilling slave. Of course, all this behavior, while despicable, is only the tip of the iceberg of the inhumane activity that actually took place on Southern plantations.
Source: Years ago I gave my mother the author’s book, The Porcelain Dove, which she greatly enjoyed, so when I saw this mentioned on Goodreads I put it on my TBR list and got it from the CLAMS Library system while vacationing. Now I need to check out what she was writing during the intervening years!