October Read of the Month: “When Mountains Move,” by Julie Cantrell


Julie Cantrell

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

From the outset, wrenching secrets handicap Millie and Bump’s marriage in When Mountains Move, the sequel to Julie Cantrell’s debut Into the Free.

You don’t have to read the debut first to enjoy the sequel, but you should. Cantrell’s first novel won Christy awards for Best Debut Novel and for Book of the Year 2013. It also spent three weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Into the Free establishes Millie Reynold’s upbringing in Depression-Era Mississippi. We learn Millie is a survivor who picks herself up after tragedy. But the challenges aren’t over for Millie.

The sequel asks us to think about what we would do if we were raped by a prominent citizen. Would we tell? What if we became pregnant—would we keep the child or have an abortion? If we gave birth, could we love the child as our own?

Whether you start with Into the Free or When Mountains Move, you will soon love Millie and Bump. Neither has had an easy life, but each possesses inner strength and a rare degree of integrity.

As the story begins, Bump marries seventeen-year-old Millie and takes her West to start a ranch. Cauy Tucker, their former rodeo manager, offers them this opportunity, a chance to build a new life. The setting shifts from Mississippi to Colorado. Cantrell paints both with the same attention to detail and lyrical description.

Until Millie and Bump arrive at the old Fortner place, they have no idea how run-down and rustic the ranch is. No running water. No fence. Yet the physical challenge of rebuilding only marks the beginning of their problems.

The heart of the story: it takes far more than a ceremony and vows to make a marriage work. Millie keeps secrets that prevent her husband from understanding her. She also occasionally fans the flame of a former love in her heart. Though Bump is almost too good, he allows himself to grow close to a flirtatious neighbor—or at least he doesn’t do enough to discourage her. The newlyweds must do the hard work of moving closer to the other to truly become one and build a life together as “The We.”

Millie’s new-found Choctaw grandmother plays a prominent role in this story as the wise old woman providing support and advice. A delightful tradition she passes along is to name children with traits and to take a secret name as an adult.

A subplot that enriches the story centers on the town’s “bad man,” Fortner. It is Fortner’s former ranch that Millie and Bump have taken on as their project, and the sheriff and townspeople let them know Fortner has murdered one—or possibly two—people. Bump, however, trusts Fortner right away and hires him to help with the many chores that must be tackled before the ranch is ready to host a herd of horses. Fortner’s troubles mirror Millie’s. He has kept secrets for many years, resulting in isolation from the community.

Periodically, a mountain lion makes an appearance, and like a loaded gun, you know that sooner or later it will cause trouble. The lion represents forces of nature that are beyond our control. The lion’s mothering instincts find sympathetic resonance in Millie.

The novel offers passages you will want to read over and over again for their beauty and their truth. Like this one delivered in Millie’s voice while her baby is seriously ill: “What a cruel and beautiful mystery, this mothering. The ache, the love. It’s all too much. And I’m betting no mother comes out unchanged. Not just physically, but spiritually. Stretch mark of the soul.”

An admirable quality of Cantrell’s writing is that faith informs her characters’ actions without devolving into proselytizing. Her light touch keeps the focus on the storyline so you never feel as if you are reading someone’s sermon. It takes a real gift to achieve that restraint.

When Mountains Move is a lovely novel, one to treasure and read more than once.

Julie Cantrell has served as editor-in-chief of the Southern Literary Review and is a recipient of the Mississippi Arts Commission Literary Fellowship. She and her family live in Mississippi, where they operate Valley House Farm.  For more about the author, visit www.juliecantrell.com.

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