Set in Depression-era Mississippi, Into the Free by Julie Cantrell is a literary and romantic tale of love, hate, forgiveness and how the choices we make have the power to shape countless lives.
HERE'S THE SITCH:
When she's not helping her mama through a bout of self-medicated depression or hiding from the violent mood swings of her father, Jack, Millie spends her time hanging out in Sweetie, the big tree she considers a friend. Each spring she watches from Sweetie's branches for the caravan of gypsies to roll into town — and for the white-shirted boy whose freedom and mystery have captured her fascination.
By the time she is 16, Millie longs to escape her small Mississippi town and all the things that tie her to it. When the gypsies arrive, she cannot seem to keep herself from following them to observe a ceremony. Finally invited around their campfire one night, she finds a seat near River, the gypsy boy she's watched for years.
There's more to River than meets the eye — and what meets the eye is beautiful. Well-read, thoughtful and dedicated to the traveler's life, River easily captures Millie's heart. But Millie's plan to escape with River is interrupted by Jack's violence. With her mother's life and sanity hanging by a thread, she cannot bring herself to leave. The gypsies move on — but an old woman leaves Millie with a mysteriously obtained key — and the promise that it will help her know her future.
Millie doesn't know how the gypsy woman got the key, but she knows what box it opens. With a Pandora-like threat hanging over her, she uses the key and discovers much has been hidden from her.
Clinging to River's promise of return, Millie must wade through tragedy and the heartbreaking secrets of her parents' pasts before finding out whether God has truly abandoned her — or if he is still at work, carving a painful path by which Millie might someday escape into the free.
HITS & MISSES
When a novel begins with a strong taste of the literary, I tend to savor it slowly, pulling it out in between other, lighter fare and nibbling on its richness a bite at a time over an extended period. I couldn't do that with this novel, however. It begged to be devoured.
Cantrell's style of prose engages the reader as an intimate and contemporary friend, displaced for a moment in time. In the beginning, the voice of the narrator vaguely reminds one of Harper Lee's Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, but as the story progresses, Millie is shown to be a tenderly unique girl whose childhood has created a deep and abiding doubt in the love of God and the goodness of man.
Layering tension in a subtle way, Cantrell allows her characters to arc at a believable pace that neither slows the plot nor brings events too quickly to pass. Rich with both the sweet and the savory, I found myself utterly glutted by this story.
On every level, it's a hit.
TO READ, OR NOT TO READ?
It's been a long time since a book managed to break my heart, but Julie Cantrell's Into the Free did just that. The author didn't stop at breaking my heart, however; she also healed it, broke it again — and came back to heal it some more.
But just when I thought everything was coming together for Millie's poignant Happy Ever After, Cantrell threw in a gut-wrenching twist that, although foreshadowed, opened a raw gash in the heart. In time, however, the author provided an exquisite salve for the wound that, while unable to disguise its scar, added to the texture of her tale. When I reached the end it felt so right. So complete. So satisfying. But the author has promised that there is more of Millie's story to tell — and it will be exciting to see the follow-up to this stunning debut.
Certainly an author to watch, Julie Cantrell has penned a beautiful and literary coming-of-age romance that is as close to perfect as I've seen in quite some time. Into the Free is a heartbreaking triumph of a story — a beautiful depiction of how the choices we make determine how hard we fall — or how softly we can land after being broken.(This review originally appeared at USA Today's romance fiction blog, Happy Ever After)