My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Millie Reynolds is nine when we first meet her watching her troubled world from the boughs of Sweetie, the gum tree that gives her comfort and escape. The place is Iti Taloa Mississippi, the year 1936. Author Julie Cantrell takes us through Millie’s growing-up years to the age of seventeen in this debut novel, Into the Free.
It’s a complex, coming-of-age story that explores heavy issues like spousal abuse, a kid’s relationship with dysfunctional parents, how someone who appears good on the outside may be anything but, first love, what is love, forgiveness, is there a God, if there is, what is He like and how do we relate to Him?
Cantrell writes the story from Millie’s point of view, first person, present tense, which gives it a feeling of immediacy and lets us see deep into this interesting, bright but conflicted girl. The writing is lyrical and gorgeous but still believably in character as filtered through the eyes of an observant, teen:
“Shame is the only thing I know that can be silent and loud, all at the same time” – p. 110 (Kindle edition).
“Diana sits next to me and tells me the story of Prometheus and Zeus. I pretend she is Mama. Her voice is like a long sip of sweet tea” – p. 204.
We see the other characters—her mom, dad, Sloth, grandparents, River, Bump—through her eyes. But she’s a pretty reliable narrator, more believable than the crowd who cheers her bull-riding father, or the women who gossip about her troubled mother. Of course all the people close to her are presented to us as mixed good-and-bad too, as one would expect from a kid reflecting on her parents, grandparents and the boys she falls for.
The setting is very 1930’s ‘40s southern USA, showing the attitudes and standards of the time, especially evident in the role of women, clothes (Millie experiences the freedom of her first pair of slacks when she is sixteen), and attitudes toward those of different races and ethnicity like the Gypsies and the Choctaw Indians.
All in all, it’s a dark, raw story but also hopeful as it explores some of a family’s and society’s secrets but leaves us with the aftertaste of survival, redemption, and hard-won faith.
Want more? Check out the author’s website for a wealth of extras—a Reader’s Guide (with spoilers; don’t read if you want the book to be a surprise), play lists of songs that inspired and are mentioned in the story, an article on domestic violence, recipes for food Millie would have loved, and more.
Cantrell’s second novel, When Mountains Move, will continue the story of Millie. It is scheduled to release in September of 2013 (David C. Cook publisher).
View the book trailer for Into the Free HERE.
(This book is part of my own Kindle collection.)