Corsair, 2015, 267 p. Reviewed for Interzone 259, Jul-Aug 2015.
It is 1960 in New Orleans. Eleven year old Sophie Martineau is descended from the once grand Fairchilds and through her mother she has inherited the distinctive Fairchild nose. The family owned the Oak River plantation in Louisiana but has now fallen on harder times. Her mother is still fiercely proud of her heritage though, refers to the War of Northern Aggression, has inculcated in Sophie a suspicion of black men and feels herself to be a Southern Belle. Sophie’s failure to live up to her mother’s standards of dress, tidiness and deportment is, then, a source of friction. To add to Sophie’s woes, her parents are divorced and her father has married again. Her mother always harboured suspicions about her ex-husband’s background – muttering darkly about a “touch of the tar brush” – has now had to get a job and has also signed up to train in accounting. To allow time for this Sophie must go to the ancestral home to be looked after by her aunt and grandmother for the summer. The signs saying “coloreds only” at a stopover and references to Negroes “the polite term” remind (or perhaps inform – this is a YA novel) the reader of the legacies of slavery.
At Oak River the former Big House is disused and the maze is in some disrepair. Sophie’s only solace is a book of adventures featuring teenagers who travel back in time. Wishing to be anywhere else she explores the maze one day and hears a voice in her ear. This is a trickster she calls The Creature, which later surprises her swimming in a pool and tells her he “sits at the doorway betwixt might be and is, was and will be, here and there.” At her request it manifests itself; as an odd looking podgy mammal with deer’s ears. After one more altercation with her visiting mother she tells the Creature she wants to travel in time herself. The Creature obliges. The bulk of the novel deals with the consequences as Sophie finds herself on the Fairchild estate in 1860, mistaken for a slave sent up from New Orleans by estate owner Charles’s brother Robert. The spoilt daughter of the estate, Elizabeth Fairchild, is immediately antagonistic towards her but her parents Mr and Mrs Charles Fairchild are less mistrustful and Sophie is given household duties to perform. In following these we are treated to a rather heavy-handedly written conversation about the likelihood of war with the North. Sophie swiftly falls ill and is allowed even lighter duties in order to recover. While in her delirium she hears a conversation between the Creature and a spirit called Papa Legba (who saves her from dying) about the dangers of travelling in time without preparation.
It must be said that, after initial incomprehension at not being recognised as white, Sophie slips very easily into the life of a slave, learning deference quickly and adopting slave speech patterns. It is in this context that the novel strikes a note that seems slightly off. Yes, the Fairchilds are “good” slave owners, though the overseer Mr Akins is not so reticent in this respect, but even if the prospect of a whipping is never far off the slaves’ conditions do not come over as being as grim as might be expected. Similarly the one whipping Sophie does eventually receive does not read as being as devastating. Sherman does highlight other gritty aspects of 1860 life, sanitary protection for instance is very rudimentary.
What plot there is kicks in when Elizabeth’s suitor Beaufort Waters casts his roving eye – not to mention hands – on the slave girl Antigua. It is here that the Creature’s purpose in bringing Sophie back in time is fulfilled. Sophie’s resourcefulness and the usefulness of a Fairchild nose are instrumental in the resolution of Antigua’s situation.
In all of this any fantastical elements are scant. The intervention by Papa Legba could be interpreted as an hallucination induced by Sophie’s illness and the time travel is merely a black box. There is nothing speculative about it, no mechanism for it. It just happens. Sherman merely uses it as a device to precipitate Sophie’s consciousness into the nineteenth century. Her purpose is to tell a story set in the slavery era and to seek to make it relevant to modern times. In this she succeeds well enough. In the end, though, there is as little sense of true jeopardy in Sophie’s sojourn in the past as there was in the stories she so enjoyed in 1960. And it does seem rather to belittle the subject matter to make an overt comparison between freedom from slavery and throwing off parental shackles.
The following did not appear in the review:-
Pedant’s corner: up and moved (upped and moved, surely?) there was horrified gasp (a horrified gasp,) you should look out after her better, Lolabelle morphs to LolaBelle and back again, mistress’ (mistress’s,) “who lived in all the way up in” (who lived all the way up in,) lookingglass (looking glass,) her effort must have showed (shown,) bit (bitten,) made up of several man (men,) Mama appeared the garden entrance.