Hinnefeld creates a symphony of voices in a multi-generational novel spanning from 1872 to the mid-1960s, although the real message of the story is delivered by college friends Amazing Grace Jansen, a daughter of Appalachia, and Mary Elizabeth Cox, daughter of a black Southern preacher. “Maze” finds it impossible to edit her intrusive questions, filled with curiosity when the girls meet at Berea College in Kentucky in 1961. Mary Elizabeth, a piano prodigy, is a young woman of few words, shamed by a family history of a mother’s mental problems and seeking solace in her music.
The author develops the texture of her characters through the very family histories they try to avoid. Maze’s mother, Vista, provides the critical generational link between Maze and Sister Georgia, and Mary Elizabeth’s mother, Sarah, still battles the demons of childhood. Adding to this rich landscape is Sister George, an elderly Shaker woman who taught at Berea College sixty years ago and struggled with limitations and disappointments in an even more rigidly controlled generation, a woman of great spirit subject to society’s stifling constraints.
Relating family histories, the author evokes an old world sensibility, the fragile independence of females in Kentucky from 1872 through the cultural revolution of the ‘60s, when Maze and Mary Elizabeth face their own problems fitting into a world of changed expectations, education transcending the barriers of ignorance. Georginea Ward cannot find a comfortable place in a society that asks her to submit to family demands, while Maze and Mary Elizabeth face equally confusing decisions, the rights of women still circumscribed by patriarchy.
From the exploitation of Mary Elizabeth’s race as a token piano prodigy at Berea College to Maze’s fatherless childhood and Sister Georgia’s devotion to the Shaker community, the novel explores the roots of family and these characters’ innate need for independence. While Mary Elizabeth doesn’t fully appreciate the extent of her mother’s emotional distress and Maze injects herself into the private family business of her friend, the troubles of these girls’ mothers are not insignificant in their daughters’ evolution.
Hinnefeld’s gift is an ability to bring the past into the present, marrying the two in the acute and personal suffering of each individual, revealing a web of family ties and long-hidden secrets. Linked through their stories, these characters influence one another in dramatic ways, forging relationships that expand their experiences and teach them compassion for those we do not understand.