Into the Free by Julie Cantrell (review)

intothefree_cantrell_tnzJulie Cantrell has created a 9 year old narrator in Millie Reynolds that has me feeling for her now very nearly the same as I remember feeling for Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird when I first read it over 30 years ago.

Millie as a nine year old is charming, and a gateway into a childhood that is filled with the wonder of hearing trees sing and helping an older neighbor, Sloth (whose nickname slowly grew on me and greatly formed how I imagine him) care for his chickens.  She is also the filter through which we see her mother, prone to depression and using drugs to escape the pain of her life, and her father, a half-Choctaw rodeo bull-rider who reacts to her mother’s drug addiction with abusive rages.

I watch the train until it disappears completely.  I don’t know what Sloth thinks free looks like, but I imagine it’s a place where nine-year-old girls like me aren’t afraid of their fathers.  Where mother’s don’t get the blues.  (p.2-3)

As the story moves forward, we leap to Millie as a sixteen year old experiencing her first romance as well as further tragedies.  While Millie’s early years are firmly rooted in the poverty of her small world, growing up in poverty and watching the Travelers from afar as they visit her town of Iti Taloa each year.  It is in her teen years that her experience widens, entering a bit more into the world of the Travelers, and eventually a gracious home where a secret from the past turns her into less of an observer and more of a victim.

Where this book stumbles a little is in Millie’s teen years.  Her voice is not quite as compelling, the descriptions not always as clear or as magical and pacing not quite as even.  While the first half of the book outshines the second, I found so much to enjoy (and so much to squeeze my heart) in both parts.

Throughout this novel, set in Mississippi during the Great Depression, I was captivated. Millie’s voice is mesmerizing in the beginning and kept me glued to my kindle until the end. This is an intense story, filled with raw emotion.  The poverty, violence and utter desolation that Millie endures makes the conclusion all the sweeter.  Instead of pitying her for her circumstances, I found much to admire in her continued refusal to be a victim and ability to find her faith after all that occurs.  I am very much looking forward to reading more of Millie’s story.  Perhaps in it she will finally get to the “Free” she longs for.

That Into the Free was the 2013 Christy Award Book of the Year is not surprising.  This book was, for me, one of those too rare immersive experiences where I come away feeling a bit changed, a bit overwhelmed, and wanting to press everyone around me to read.  When I was about three quarters through the library ebook version, I felt compelled to run out and buy a paperback copy so that I will have both it and the second book, When Mountains Move (I received this from TNZ’s Fiction Guild, which is what prompted me to start reading Into the Free), on my bookshelf.

4/5 stars.  Highly recommended for those who enjoy a strong heroine, first person narrative, and raw but wonderful stories set during the 1930’s and early 1940’s.  Though classified as a work of Christian Historical Fiction, I’m considering shelving it with other books that give me a similar feel like To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, and Sherley Anne Williams’ Dessa Rose.

What about you, do you have any favorites that seem to belong in more than one place?  How do you decide what category you will place them in?

Into the Free by Julie Cantrell | Thomas Nelson, 2012 (repackaged in 2016) | paperback, 329 pages

Publisher’s description:

Millie is just a girl. But she’s the only one strong enough to break the family cycle.

In Depression-era Mississippi, Millie Reynolds longs to escape the madness that marks her world. With an abusive father and a “nothing mama,” she struggles to find a place where she really belongs. For answers,

Millie turns to the Gypsies who caravan through town each spring. The travelers lead Millie to a key that unlocks generations of shocking family secrets. When tragedy strikes, the mysterious contents of the box give Millie the tools she needs to break her family’s longstanding cycle of madness and abuse. Through it all, Millie experiences the thrill of first love while fighting to trust the God she believes has abandoned her. With the power of forgiveness, can Millie finally make her way into the free?

Saturated in Southern ambiance and written in the vein of other Southern literary bestsellers like The Help by Kathryn Stockett and CrookedLetter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin, Julie Cantrell has created Into theFree—now a New York Times bestseller—a story that will sweep you away long after the novel ends.


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