A young girl growing into adolescence confronts family abuse and a dark past in this lyrical debut novel. Millie Reynolds and her mother live in a ramshackle cabin in Depression-era Mississippi, occasionally receiving unwelcome visits from the violent family patriarch, Jack. With her only friend, Sloth, dead and gone, Millie struggles to find any happiness with a “nothing mama” and a ruthless father. Only the passing caravans of gypsies offer her any semblance of belonging. But when unlucky events engulf her, she discovers some surprising secrets that eventually help her hope in God’s love. Cantrell’s exquisitely written story immerses readers in a world that is as cruel as it is beautiful. From the opening lines to the very last sentence, the book’s magnetic prose bewitches and enthralls on every page. A visceral and gripping journey of a young woman’s revelations about God and self, this novel will surely excite any reader who appreciates a compelling story about personal struggle and spiritual resilience. Agent: Greg Johnson, WordServe Literary. (Feb.)
The bottom line: I have no recollection of being so powerfully moved written words in my lifetime.
Julie writes with an authenticity and genuineness that perfectly captures the experience of many children who grow up in violent homes. Millie’s growth from child to late adolescent in the book tracks perfectly with the psychologic development of kids in her position. I’ve developed workshops and delivered countless trainings in this particular subject area. With Into the Free, I could instead take a front row seat in Julie’s classroom, witnessing firsthand, transfixed, the personification of everything I’ve ever learned from my clients about their experience. One of my favorite professors described empathy as walking with our clients, trying to understand their experience. With the characters in this book, I was able to walk a mile in their shoes- wanting desperately to flee from the text, but unable to abandon the young protagonist when she was so desperately alone.
I am considering making this book required reading for a class that I teach at a local university. There is no better way to experience the journey of so many of the people we work with. For those blessed to never live in Millie’s circumstance, it offers insight into the human condition. For those who have or still do, it may offer some roadmap to healing their own invisible wounds.
This is an outstanding read, its characters complex and evolving. It is easy to love young Millie Reynolds, to be afraid for her, to cheer for her, to want to hold her tightly until the storms in her life pass. The reader is treated to an age-accurate view of the world that matures as Millie does- from a dichotomous perspective that categorizes people as good or bad, to one more accurately reflecting the people that we all are- significanly more than can be described with a few adjectives.
Buy this book- the publisher guarantees to credit your purchase price if you don’t believe it worth the time most will certainly invest into it. My warning: don’t buy it if you are afraid to connect with the protagonist at a visceral level. I don’t suspect many will read the book without going through a spectrum of emotions.
This is a coming-of-age story that pushes the limits of the human spirit. It is bleak, dark, and haunting. More than once, I put the book down, unable to continue because Millie’s pain was just too much for me to comprehend in one sitting. I cried, got angry, and felt deep sorrow during the read. Once I pushed the book away, not knowing if I could continue. Yet, the hope that there could be redemption brought me back, kept me wanting to see this young girl survive and thrive against insurmountable odds.
When I finished the book, I felt a long sigh in my spirit, as though I myself had struggled through each crisis and was now taking a recuperative breath. Yep, the sign of a really good story…I was Millie, and I had won.
Julie Cantrell’s writing is just poetry. The story is told in first person, from Millie’s point of view. The genius of Cantrell is seen in the narrative: as Millie matures from a small girl to a young woman, so does her language, her sentence structure, the cadence of her speech. The metaphors are purely Southern, rich and full, befitting the girl’s age and social status. The characters, as seen through Millie’s eyes, change and grow as Millie changes and grows. Cantrell doesn’t lose perspective throughout the novel, a difficult task for any author. Brava!
I am thankful to the publisher, David C. Cook, for providing me with an advance copy of Into the Free in exchange for my honest, published review.
“Julie Cantrell beautifully renders a vivid past, but her subjects are immediate and eternal—family secrets, love’s many losses, revenge and revelation, and finally redemption. Her characters may buck and brawl and bray against the notion of God in their lives, but there’s no denying He continues to send them into each other’s path, and Cantrell masterfully introduces them to one another in her wonderfully woven narrative. This book is full of insightful detail and wondrous turns, with an ending that moves in all directions through time like God’s grace.”
Mark Richard, author of House of Prayer No. 2
“In this lovely novel author Julie Cantrell shows us how our heart’s desire can intersect with God’s plan no matter how many times we deny it, or how blurred the lines between good and evil can sometimes be, and the existence in our lives of angels in disguise we can sometimes see if we just look hard enough. The story’s protagonist, Millie, is beautifully drawn. Her spunk and spirit carves a place for her in your heart as she battles life’s hardships with truth and grace. By the simple act of learning how to pray, Millie finds her way in the world and into the free. Exquisitely written, Julie Cantrell has created a haunting story that will linger in your heart long after you’ve turned the last page.”
Karen White, New York Times bestselling author of The Beach Trees
“A lyrical, moving, haunting, wise, brutal, warm-hearted, and ultimately freeing and inspiring coming-of-age tale told with poetic honesty. Julie Cantrell is a wonderful writer. She doesn’t just tell a story, she invites you right into it so that you don’t just read it, you live it. Into the Free swept me up and swept me along, and the story and the characters stayed with me—in the very best way—long after I turned the last page.”
Jennifer Niven, bestselling author of The Ice Master, Velva Jean Learns to Drive, and Velva Jean Learns to Fly
“Readers will fall in love with spirited, young Millie Reynolds, a girl with one eye on the heavens and the other on the savages that occupy our world. Julie Cantrell’s Into the Free is a searing tale of heartache, faith, forgiveness, and doubt set amidst gypsies, angels, addicts, asylums, roughnecks and rodeo hands.”
Neil White, author of In the Sanctuary of Outcasts
Lynne Bryant, author of Catfish Alley and Alligator Lake
“Julie Cantrell’s compelling story of one young woman’s journey through the choices that lead to freedom drew me in from the very first scene. I simply couldn’t turn the pages fast enough, at least until I neared the end … when I purposefully slowed down, knowing instinctively that I was going to miss Millie Reynolds from Into the Free. I was right.”
Shellie Rushing Tomlinson, Belle of All Things Southern and national bestselling author of Sue Ellen’s Girl Ain’t Fat, She Just Weighs Heavy
“Gritty, compelling, and beautifully told, Into the Free will take you into a coming of age story filled with heartrending hardship and luminous hope. Julie Cantrell is a writer to watch!”
Lisa Wingate, bestselling, award-winning author of Blue Moon Bay and Dandelion Summer
“This is an amazing debut novel with beautifully crafted prose, but be warned: portions of the story are rather dark and disturbing—not for the timid reader.”
Melody Carlson, author of Finding Alice
“Evil abounds in this first novel by Julie Cantrell, but faith prevails. Millie Reynolds is a character readers won’t soon forget. At once she is brave and fragile, victim and heroine, a girl you’ll find yourself rooting for again and again as she transcends unthinkable tragedies and lifts herself Into the Free.”
Suzanne Supplee, author of Artichoke’s Heart, Somebody Everybody Listens To, and When Irish Guys Are Smiling
“Julie Cantrell has a sweet and powerful way with a story. She knows how to make friends with a reader. You’re going to fall in love with Into the Free. I did.”
Don Reid, The Statler Brothers, and author of O Little Town and One Lane Bridge
“I appreciate a novel in which the love of God is woven as seamlessly into the story as it is into real life. Julie Cantrell has written such a novel, full of the kind of human drama and spiritual struggle that we face with every bit as much trepidation and doubt as Millie Reynolds does. I had to check twice to make sure this high quality work was a debut novel.”
Nancy Rue, author of The Reluctant Prophet and Unexpected Dismounts
“Into the Free is a novel varied and rich as life itself. Millie Reynolds defines resilience in this powerful story about family, faith and finding one’s own way.”
Irene Latham, award-winning author of Leaving Gee’s Bend
“Readers will root for Millie Reynolds, plucky and determined heroine of Jule Cantrell’s novel debut. With an ear for dialogue and an eye for landscape, the world of Into the Free is richly created and populated by complex characters that astound and inspire. Bravo!”
Beth Ann Fennelly, award-winning poet and author of Great with Child
“I settled in to do what I promised…read and review. By the first few pages I completely forgot where I was. Each page had so much tension…it just pulled me forward. Rarely do I even finish most fiction books, much less roar through them. I cannot believe this is Julie’s first novel. She writes likes a seasoned pro. I am sure this will be the first of many more books by Julie Cantrell. Her name is sure to become popular on reader’s tongues.”
Lucille Zimmerman, RumorsofGlory.com
“Into the Free by Julie Cantrell is a tender exposing of truth that gives a young girl reason to believe that God exists and is good after all. Cantrell pulls back the layer’s of Millie’s overlapped doubt and faith one at a time to give us a character who truly wants to heal the gaping wounds of her life. We first meet Millie Reynolds at age ten, then find her again at sixteen ready to unpack the mysteries that trapped her childhood and find authentic framing for her adult life. We see everything through Millie’s point of view and in a voice that rings true from beginning to end.”
Olivia Newport, author of the Avenue of Dreams series
The first chapter of Into the Free delighted me with its descriptive southern prose but then crashed into my heart in such an unexpected way that left me gasping and wondering if I could make it through the book. But it was so well written, that I kept turning the pages as my heart cheered for young Millie to survive her abusive and underprivileged Mississippi family. Millie didn’t disappoint me. The young girl was a wonderful combination of child and grit. Her story touched my soul.
From the start, Millie’s mother is already broken to the point that she has nothing left to give Millie. But God wraps his arms around the child through the comfort of nature—she finds solace in a huge gum tree that she calls her sweetie. He sends people like Sloth and (Mabel) into her life at critical points to meet her needs, while all around her, adults continue to make poor choices and evil abounds. Cantrell gives us the good and the bad that have formed each character. For instance, while we experience the abusive side of Jack through Millie’s eyes, we also watch how her father’s rodeo peers esteem him.
Julie Cantrell is an author who isn’t afraid to use haunting imagery that opens eyes to reality. A blow is described as the ‘sound of a cool watermelon being busted open in the heat of summer, a thick and empty jolt that drains all the sweetness out…’
Into the Free is so saturated with symbolism that I will want to read it through a second time, if I dare, to catch it all and let it sink into my soul. The minor characters are colorful and all work together to shape Millie’s life in this coming-of-age novel. The plot is unpredictable, with many surprises and a cast of cowboys, ghosts, and gypsies. And yet it also comes full circle many times over. If you like Dramas or Edgy Inspirationals, you must read this novel.
I dog-eared the corner of a page with my favorite lines: ‘For years, I have searched and searched for this God. This feeling of complete love and acceptance. He was always out of reach. But here, where food is scarce, money is tight, heat is heavy, and tensions should run high, God is everywhere….’”
Dianne Christner, author of the Plain City Bridesmaids series
“Wow! This book grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. Captivating prose combined with captivating characters make it a book that isn’t easy to put down. A great book club book! Especially in light of some things that transpire at the end. I know I’d love to discuss them!”
Katie Ganshert, author of Wildflowers from Winter