Sophia’s Journal, Najiyah Diana Maxfield
Daybreak Press, 2014
Reviewed by Jonita Davis
Science fiction is a genre often used for testing new ideas and exposing complicated, existing ones. Najiyah Diana Maxfield’s young adult novel Sophia’s Journal performs both tasks in an age when American students could use some education on the Muslim culture—as well a new spin on the ages old time travel trope.
Sophia’s Journal follows a self-proclaimed hypochondriac, 16-year-old, Muslim Sophia as she finds herself trapped back in the pioneer days before Kansas became a state. The teen goes from a family biking trip set in our time to the pioneer land of 1857—an age where cell phones, television and internet (all staples for her generation) don’t exist. What first seems like a dream ends up becoming the lesson of a lifetime for Sophia and the Sampsons, the pioneer family who takes her in.
This intriguing tale may seem like a handful of others that have been published over the years. That is, until the reader discovers that Sophia is a devout Muslim. She is vigilant about her daily prayers, modest dress, humble demeanor, and devotion to the religion that she was raised in. Sophia’s Muslim heritage clashes with the pioneer lifestyle in ways that expose the fragilities of the era with situations that young adults have yet to experience. There are also many similarities that also work define the pioneer era for today’s generation. It is at the intersection of the Muslim tradition and pioneer lifestyle where Maxfield succeeds in teaching teens lessons in values, community, and history in a way that has never been attempted before.
An early scene illustrates hygiene on the prairie in 1857 compared to modern times. Sophia balks as Mrs. Sampson uses the water in the tub from washing clothes the previous night to wash dishes the next morning. This same water was all that Sophia could use to make her morning cleansing prayers or ablutions. She had to make an emergency dry ablution because the only water available was likely “teaming with bacteria” (55). Later, she marvels at how much the people on the prairie comes together as a community to barter and help one another. But also reveals that “the community was so spread out that the sense of common purpose and work she remembered from back home was lacking” (149). Sophia’s reminder drives home the lack of communication technology. Maxfield also uses Sophia’s musings about her family’s closeness to further create the picture of the lonely life on the prairie at the time.
Slavery was a large part of our history, especially in 1857, with the fight for free states and slave state status. Sophia’s discovery that a slave shares her religion highlights that brutality of slavery and the hardship the lifestyle creates for everyone involved. Mr. William was once a wealthy, educated man who lost his family, wealth, and freedom to the institution. Sophia’s determination to at least help him win back his freedom becomes a lesson in the complexities of the practice of human ownership in the mid-1800’s that difficult to see in other young adult fiction.
The Muslim religion is heavily threaded through Sophia’s Journal, but the references seem natural to the character and are essential in exposing parts of the modern vs. pioneer culture clash that readers will never get from Little House on the Prairie and other similar works. Maxfield creates an entertaining and educational text that should become a staple in middle and high school reading courses, as she tells the story of the prairie experience with a fresh, inclusive voice that is sure to resonate with teen readers today.