PUBLICATION DATE: February 1, 2012
nto the Free
nto the Freefollows the life of Millie Reynolds, who when the book opens is nine years old and as it closes, seventeen. The book is set in Depression-era Mississippi but the story has a timeless quality to it, and even those who aren’t fans of historical fiction are likely to enjoy it.
Millie has a difficult life. Her father, Jack, comes into town only occasionally, and when he does, he beats her mother, Marie. Marie isn’t much of a mother to Millie, at least not when she struggles with depression and a drug addiction. Throughout the book, we learn that she has been more attentive in the past and has shared her Christian faith with Millie, who isn’t sure what to make of it. After all, it seems that God abandoned them a long time ago.
When things get especially hard to handle, Millie escapes to her favorite tree, which she has named Sweetie, or she spends time with their neighbor, Sloth, an elderly man she identifies as her closest friend.
Each spring, a group of gypsies comes to town. Enticed by their mystery and close community (something she’s never experienced), Millie begins to spend time with them. She quickly falls for a young gypsy named River, a good-looking young man with a penchant for quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald. Millie promises to leave town with him, but when her plans are delayed, she ends up learning new things about herself, especially as she spends time with her father’s old rodeo group.
Into the Free isn’t easy to read; there are a number of very violent scenes and Millie experiences one tragedy after another. But the beauty of the book is Julie Cantrell’s terrific writing and the way she describes the scenery, the people, and Millie’s growth. The writing is powerful, and Cantrell knows exactly the right words to paint each scene. It’s hard to believe this is her first novel.
I enjoyed the characters whom Millie encounters. Her grandparents are perfectly described and multi-layered. Bump, a young man she befriends in the rodeo, is likewise well-written and genuine. Mabel might be my favorite character. I love it when she tells Millie “There’s nothing in the world like having someone love you for who you really are. Looking at your heavy baggage and leaning down to whisper in your ear, ‘You’re perfect.’”
At times, the message is conveyed in a very obvious way. For example, connections between past and present are spelled out explicitly, whereas it would have been even more powerful to let the reader connect the dots.
Still, this is an amazing book and it’s rewarding to read about how Millie grows in her faith, despite all that happens to her. There’s a beautiful scene where she is alone in a baptismal pool: “I turn again to the words on the wall just as morning breaks through and beams of sunlight reach the wooden cross. It may take a long time, but somehow I believe that the broken pieces of me will come back together. Someone, somewhere, is on my side.” Even if you (like me) aren’t that interested in horses, gypsies, or the rodeo, scenes like this make Into the Free an incredibly moving and memorable story.