Review by Adele Annesi
Julie Cantrell’s debut novel, Into the Free, offers a poetic voice and compelling story for young adults and adults that engages readers in tales of segregation, challenges, secrets and hope in unexpected places.
Set in Depression-era Mississippi, Into the Free is the story of Millie Reynolds, whose mixed Choctaw and white race casts her into trouble from the story’s outset. Millie, who lives in Cabin Two in Iti Taloa, whose new name, Meyersville, never took, is spared none of life’s hardships. From poverty to violent and feuding parents to an estranged extended family whose faith falls short amid Millie’s inescapable vulnerability, nothing apparently is sacred, and all of life is up for grabs.
The author’s courage shines as she places young Millie in the challenges that threaten all girls and young women in any era, regardless of geography. Evident in each scene is the author’s profound respect for the temptations and struggles of the young, particularly those who don’t fit society’s expectations and demands.
Millie Reynolds, however, is inquisitive, intuitive and more than smart — she’s wise, not only beyond her years, but beyond those who are decades older. In depicting a stalwart girl who grows up a tender shoot among thorns, Cantrell deftly avoids the twin traps of sentimentalism and victimized main character. Despite Millie’s profound and repeated losses, and sometimes her own poor choices, her innate strength glimmers amid the dismal surroundings of the places she’s forced to call home. Obligated to a mother who is the victim of abuse at the hands of a largely absentee rodeo husband with a double life, a man Millie can’t call father despite her ability to name other important aspects of her life, she manages to care for her mother, who is unable and unwilling to care for herself, let alone her only daughter.
Evident from the story’s start is that Millie yearns for more out of life than her family can give, as with her indomitable spirit and determination she seeks to uncover the secrets of the past that her mother buries in a box she seems to not want found. What Millie discovers are the secrets young women learn from their mothers — those that can be known only in part and those that are known in full and only too well. They learn, too, as Millie does, which to hold on to and which are as toxic as the relationships they signify.
Cantrell, a speech-language pathologist and literacy advocate, brings depth to the story by layering each scene with symbolism, poetry and style. Apart from the occasional tendency to over explain, the story maintains its poignancy and pace as it piques and holds the reader’s interest, so that as Millie’s hardships increase, the reader roots for her all the more. In this, the author expertly shows genuine respect not only for the resilience of youth, but for the young women who came of age during the Depression and are coming of age today, offering a lesson in tenacity despite Millie’s understandable longing at times to give up. Even in these moments, the novel never succumbs to the despair that could so easily weight the story and drag the characters down.
Instead, the colored and colorful Millie exudes originality in her choice of interests, visible in her obsession with a band of gypsies that returns with the seasons to her part of the world. In them, she sees something of herself, even more than in her own household. With their dark skin, strange speech and unusual customs, they bring vitality and variation to Millie’s isolated and monochrome world, an ironic twist for a dark-skinned girl. No wonder that she finds herself attracted to River, a young gypsy boy who has the dependability, despite his comings and goings, that Millie’s family lacks. Unlike most of the men in her life, young River keeps his promises.
At pivotal points in the novel, Cantrell addresses head on the failure of people of faith to show compassion for those who are different and customs they don’t understand, as well as the misapplication of God’s promises as a panacea for all ills. Millie learns early in life and often that anyone can fail her and leave her betrayed and bereft, even, apparently, God.
Just as Millie Reynolds seems to lose all and it doesn’t appear possible that life can grow worse, it does, as Cantrell pushes Millie to brink with courage, dexterity and originality, turning her lyric phrasing inside out to reveal how an ingenious and intelligent young woman sees the world. When it appears that Millie, through her sometimes questionable choices and the unconscionable choices of others, to have lost her last opportunity for a different life, the story turns to hope, not the hope inherent in youth, but hope that comes from not waiting for life to happen, but from throwing off every hindrance — from loss of family to loss of love to loss of innocence — to follow one’s hard-won wisdom and forgiving heart into the free.
Julie Cantrell was editor-in-chief of Southern Literary Review and teaches English as a second language to elementary students. She is a freelance writer and has published two children’s books. Julie and her family run Valley House Farm Mississippi.
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