I’ve been wanting to read the complete shortlists for the Hugo and the Nebula but it’s hard with so many good books lying around here, beckoning me to read them first. But I thought it’s about time and this is just a short novel that sounds delightful. And, for the most part, it was.
published: Small Beer Press, 2011
my rating: 7/10
first sentence: Sophie Martineau looked out the window of her mother’s 1954 Ford station wagon and watched her life slide behind her into the past.
Thirteen-year-old Sophie isn’t happy about spending summer at her grandmother’s old house in the Bayou. But the house has a maze Sophie can’t resist exploring once she finds it has a secretive and playful inhabitant. When she makes an impulsive wish, she slips one hundred years into the past, to the year 1860. Once she makes her way, bedraggled and tanned, to what will one day be her grandmother’s house, she is taken for a slave.
Delia Sherman’s voice immediately enchanted me. Sophie’s trip to Oak Cottage in the stuffy, rainy heat was described so well that I crawled into the story, only to come out when I absolutely had to. Our heroine, Sophie is a very likable young girl, even though her behaviour reminded me more of a 10-year-old than a girl nearly 14. Then again, children grew up at a different speed in the 1960ies. They focus on being proper ladies, not showing your naked legs and obeying your parents. Sophie, who’s not a fan of either of these, much prefers books – which is a character trait that gains any protagonist a million points from me. A girl who reads passionately can’t really be bad.
Once Sophie gets magically transported 100 years back in time, when the plantation was still running and slaves were working for the white masters of Oak River, it gets a little overwhelming. Almost all of the slaves are named after continents, countries, or islands – which is a quirky little idea but made it very hard for me to keep track of them. Some stand out more than others, Antigua and Canny (short for Canada) being my favourites, but the others felt a lot like random stand-ins. Uncly Italy, Germany, Europe, Flanders, you name it, I connect a vague picture with some of them – mostly what gender they were – but I couldn’t really tell you who they are. Then again, maybe that is not so bad in a children’s novel. The white people are painted in shades of darkish grey, all being – to a degree – unlikable (after all, wanting to “own” a human being is not a nice trait) but not all are the same amount of hateable. Mrs. Charles and her spoiled brat of a daughter, being pure witches, were the easiest to dislike. Old Missy on the other hand, shrewd in the way she deals with her servants, is easier to understand but still not excusable.
I love how Delia Sherman tells a story about slavery without stepping into any cliché traps. Her characters, flat as some may be, are never all good or all bad. And Sophie, innocent at first, makes up her own mind about what her mother taught her and what she learns to be real. Working first as a handmaid, then even as a working hand in the sugarhouse teaches her more than manual labour. It makes her grow up in a way she never would have exptected. Wheter it’s about character development or action, Sherman paints wonderful pictures with her prose. Her language is clear and simple, yet not treating her readers as if they were dumb. Too many YA and children’s authors make the mistake of thinking their readership unintelligent.
There are some mentions of rape and violence in this story – as a story about slavery is bound to contain – but I believe it’s suitably handled even for younger readers. I felt there was a bit of a slump in the plot towards the middle but once Sophie finds out what she was sent back in time to do, the pace picks up again and ends on a hopeful note with a heroine who has grown, not only in inches.
THE GOOD: Lovely prose, believable characters, likeable protagonist.
THE BAD: Some things remain unresolved (personally, I didn’t mind), bit of a slow part in the middle.
THE VERDICT: A novel to remind us how some parts of human history can be written about any number of times and still teach you something new.
RATING: 7/10 A very good book
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