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Into the Free

Into the Free

4.3 183
by Julie Cantrell

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Millie is just a girl. But she’s the only one strong enough to break the family cycle.

In Depression-era Mississippi, Millie Reynolds longs to escape the madness that marks her world. With an abusive father and a “nothing mama,” she struggles to find a place where she really belongs. For answers,

Millie turns to the Gypsies who caravan


Millie is just a girl. But she’s the only one strong enough to break the family cycle.

In Depression-era Mississippi, Millie Reynolds longs to escape the madness that marks her world. With an abusive father and a “nothing mama,” she struggles to find a place where she really belongs. For answers,

Millie turns to the Gypsies who caravan through town each spring. The travelers lead Millie to a key that unlocks generations of shocking family secrets. When tragedy strikes, the mysterious contents of the box give Millie the tools she needs to break her family’s longstanding cycle of madness and abuse. Through it all, Millie experiences the thrill of first love while fighting to trust the God she believes has abandoned her. With the power of forgiveness, can Millie finally make her way into the free?

Saturated in Southern ambiance and written in the vein of other Southern literary bestsellers like The Help by Kathryn Stockett and CrookedLetter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin, Julie Cantrell has created Into theFree—now a New York Times bestseller—a story that will sweep you away long after the novel ends.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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.)
From the Publisher

“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.”
 - Publisher’s Weekly
“Cantrell’s words paint vivid pictures that bring Millie’s harrowing story to life. Riveting you to your chair, this story is a reminder that sometimes faith — real faith– is slowly built during the darkest moments of your life.”
- RT Reviews
“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

"A beautiful and literary coming-of-age romance that is as close to perfect as I've seen in quite some time."
Serena Chase, USA TODAY

Product Details

Nelson, Thomas, Inc.
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5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

Into the Free

By Julie Cantrell

David C. Cook

Copyright © 2012 Julie Cantrell
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-7814-0424-2

Chapter One

March 1936

A long black train scrapes across Mr. Sutton's fields. His horses don't bother lifting their heads. They aren't afraid of the metal wheels, the smoking engine. The trains come every day, in straight lines like the hems Mama stitches across rich people's pants. Ironing and sewing, washing and mending. That's what Mama does for cash. As for me, I sit in Mr. Sutton's trees, live in one of Mr. Sutton's cabins, sell Mr. Sutton's pecans, and dream about riding Mr. Sutton's horses, all in the shadow of Mr. Sutton's big house.

"He owns the whole planet. Every inch and acre. From sea to shining sea!" I lean over the branch of my favorite sweet gum tree and yell my thoughts down to Sloth, my neighbor. His cabin is next to ours in the row of servants' quarters on Mr. Sutton's place. Three small shotgun shacks with rickety porches and leaky roofs. Ours is Cabin Two, held tight by the others that squat like bookends on either side. All three are packed so close together I could spit and hit any of them.

Sloth kneels in the shade around the back corner of Cabin One. He is digging night crawlers for an afternoon trip to the river. With wrinkled hands, he drops a few thick worms into a dented can of dirt and says, "He don't own the trains."

I can only guess where the boxcars are going and where they've been. I pretend they carry "limber lions, testy tigers, and miniature horses wearing tall turquoise hats." It says that in Fables and Fairy Tales, the tattered book Mama used to read to me until I learned to read by myself.

I count cars as the train roars past. Fifteen ... nineteen.

"Where you think it's going?" I ask Sloth.

"Into the free," he says, dropping another long, slick worm into the can and standing to dust dirt from his pants. He limps back to his porch, slow as honey. About six years back, he shot clear through his own shoe while cleaning his hunting rifle. Left him with only two toes on his right foot. He's walked all hunched over and crooked ever since. He started calling himself an old sloth, on account of having just two toes. The name stuck, and even though Mama still calls him Mr. Michaels, I can't remember ever calling him anything but Sloth.

I keep counting to twenty-seven cars and watch the train until its tail becomes a tiny black flea on the shoulder of one of Mr. Sutton's pecan trees. Seventeen of those trees stand like soldiers between the cabins and the big house, guarding the line between my world and his. It's a good thing Mr. Sutton doesn't care much for pecans. He lets me keep the money from any that I sell.

I watch the train until it disappears completely. I don't know what Sloth thinks free looks like, but I imagine it's a place where nine-year-old girls like me aren't afraid of their fathers. Where mothers don't get the blues. Where Mr. Sutton doesn't own the whole wide world.

I can't help but wonder if free is where Jack goes when he packs his bags and heads out with the Cauy Tucker Rodeo crew.

Jack is my father, only I can't bring myself to call him that.

Sloth wobbles up three slanted steps to his porch. Mama sings sad songs from our kitchen. Mr. Sutton's horses eat grass without a care, as if they know they aren't mine to saddle. I climb higher in the sweet gum and hope the engineer will turn that train around and come back to get me. take me away, to the place Sloth calls the free.

* * *

"Can't believe you snapped my line," Sloth teases, reminding me about our fishing trip last week when I hooked the biggest catfish I've ever seen. He stretches string around a hook to repair the cane pole. Shaking his head, he says, "I woulda never let that cat get away."

I climb higher in my tree and watch him get ready for today's trip to the river. It's just after lunch and, if I squint, I can see all sorts of fancy hats scattering into shops around the square. I figure most of those people have never seen a catfish snap their line or pulled wiggling worms from a shady spot of soil. "Aren't you glad it's Saturday?"

Sloth nods. He knows I'm happy not to have school today. Between helping Mama with her clients' laundry and helping Sloth with his chores, it's all I can do to squeeze school into my weeks.

I turn back toward town, where families leave the diners. They look like ants, moving back to their nests right on schedule. "All that time wasted sitting inside," I tell Sloth. "They probably can't even hear the trees."

Sloth laughs. But it's a gentle laugh. One that means he's on my side.

In our town, the trees sing. I'm not the first to hear them. The Choctaw named this area Iti Taloa, which means "the song trees." Then some rich Virginian bought up all the land. He built railroads and brought in a carousel all the way from Europe. I guess he figured if colorful mermaids could spin round and round to music, right in the middle of the park, no one would care when he forced most of the Choctaw out and planted a big white sign on each end of town: Welcome to Millerville. The new name never took. Most people still call it Iti Taloa, and the postmaster will accept mail both ways. Regardless of what folks write on their envelopes, I just call it home.

More than once I've heard Jack say to Mama, "I don't guess your people mind livin' on stolen land." There's always a bitter sting in his voice when he spits out your people. I figure it's because his mother was Choctaw.

"Your people too," Mama argued once. "Your father was Irish, wasn't he?" I'm pretty sure that was the last time she dared to disagree with Jack.

Another thing Jack says about Iti Taloa is "We may not have gold or diamonds, but we do have good dirt." Because of that dirt, three railroads cross through town to load cotton and corn, so even when the rest of the country has sunk into the Great Depression, jobs here still pay people enough to splurge at Millerville General, Boel's Department Store, or even the rodeo, which is based smack-dab in the center of town.

If you could look down from the heavens to steal a glance of Iti Taloa, you would need to look just above the Jackson Prairie, nearly to the Alabama border. Here, you'll find tree-covered slopes that rise six hundred feet with deep river valleys carved in between. here, where farmland spreads like an apron around the curves of the waterways, you'll find pines, oaks, magnolias, and cedars. And here, in the limbs of those trees, is where you'll likely find me, a child of this warm, wild space.

When I'm not stuck in school or helping Mama and Sloth, I roam barefoot, climbing red river bluffs and drinking straight from the cool-water springs. Each day, I scramble through old-growth hardwoods and fertile fields, pretending I am scouting for a lost tribe or exploring ancient ruins. Other kids in town play with dolls and practice piano. I don't care much for that. My friends are the trees, and my favorite is this sweet gum. Mostly because she's planted right in front of our porch, so close I can see Mama's wedding ring slip loose around her bony finger while she drops carrots into a black iron pot. When I was too small to climb, I named my tree Sweetie. now, every day, I climb Sweetie's limbs and listen for her songs.

Right now my tree is not singing. But Mama is. I watch her tie her blonde hair back from her long, thin face. I try to hear the lyrics, but all I hear is the thunder that howls across Mr. Sutton's horse pasture. I pretend it is the sound of a stomach rumbling. That a dragon needs lunch. Mama watches me from the open kitchen window as she slices more carrots for a pot roast. She stops singing and smiles at me. "Jack's favorite," she says, and I don't think I like pot roast so much anymore.

I lean back against Sweetie's trunk and watch the storm easing our way. Mama takes one look at the stack of black clouds and starts talking like the lines in the books she reads. "In Mississippi," she says, "madness sweeps the floors clean before rolling out with the thunder."

I don't say anything. I may just be a kid, but I know what Mama's thinking because I feel it too. The storms circle around me and threaten to pull me up by my roots. Maybe that's why I cling to the trees.

Mama sighs, turns up the radio, and sings "Yonder Come the Blues." Her tone drops low and sad, and there's no more guessing. It won't be long before she's sinking back into a darker place. A place I call the valley.

The valley is where Mama goes without me. Without anyone. It's a place so dark and low that nothing can snap her back out. I sit. And wait. And pray that Mama comes back from the valley soon and that she'll love me again when she does.

"Go back blues, don't come this way." In slow motion, she drops in carrots while she sings. I hope I'll never end up like Mama. And that no one like Jack will ever tell me what to do.

Sweetie hears my thoughts and holds me tight. She's putting on her new spring leaves, a sure sign that something big is about to happen.

She's a good tree.

I climb higher and try to sneak a peek at three speckled eggs in a nest. A mockingbird squawks and nosedives me, so I flip myself upside down and hang from my knees, careful to tuck my dress between my legs.

I stretch my arms out long to pretend I am a spider spinning a web. The clouds are getting heavy, so Sloth shuffles inside where he'll wait out the storm before fishing. There, he sits in his splintered cane rocking chair, his pet rooster in his lap, and stares out his open window. "When it rains," he says, loud enough so I can hear him, "God be wantin' us to sit still and take notice."

I climb down from Sweetie's limbs to join him. But before I even make it past Mama's kitchen window, I am met with a growl. Only this time, it's not thunder.

I holler, "Mama, there's a big ol' dog out here!"

Mama doesn't answer. She just keeps on singing, slow and low. Tuning out everything but the gloomy notes.

I turn to tell Sloth, but he's already slouched back into his chair. His eyes are closed, and I decide not to disturb him. Instead, I slide under our sloping porch for a closer look at the growling beast. It takes a while for my eyes to adjust. The colors go black to gray, and then everything comes into focus. Finally, I see what spring has brought me. A stray mutt dog curled up under our cabin. Half-starved and mangy, her swollen belly is full of nothing but fear. And puppies.

By the time I find her, she has what Mama calls the "pearly glaze of pity" in her eyes, like cold round marbles that the Devil just rolled. Her growl, not much more than a rumble, is probably just a way to ask for help, but it's still enough to make me think twice about petting her. As I tuck myself up under the porch, the clouds finally give way, dropping rain like bullets. I figure to stay put until the storm passes. Besides, from the looks of her sagging belly, I'm betting the dog hasn't climbed under here just to stay dry.

I keep my distance from her while the rain pours down around us, seeping into all the low spots beneath the house, slipping around my muddy toes. Winter has spent the last three weeks packing its bags, but with the rain, even the new spring air makes me cold.

I sit cross-legged in the mud and bet this dog will have a baby before I count to one hundred. "One-Mississippi," I whisper. "Two-Mississippi." Sure enough, the first pup is born at ninety-two. I don't dare move a muscle.

She has nine pups in all, and I can hardly keep track. I count three black, four brown, and two with mixed splotches of both. I plan to keep them all, so I give them names like Jingles and Mimi. But every time I try to get close enough to touch one, the mother shows her yellow teeth and growls.

I've waited for almost an hour, but she still doesn't remove the sacs, clean them, or nurse them. Instead she smothers two with her own weight, just falls right down on top of them. Won't budge. I can't stand to watch it anymore, so I crawl closer, hoping to save the others.

But just as before, the rumbling starts. The teeth flash. The mama jerks her head back and forth, glares at me, and then at her pups. Mud and blood and the juices of birth are flung through the air and cling to my cheek. I crawl out from under the front of the porch and try to come under again from the back of the house. Rain stings me until I sneak in between sagging pilings and sticky cobwebs and walls of wasps gearing up for summer. I keep my belly pressed against the blood-red mud. I slither, snakelike, in slow motion, trying not to startle the mama dog more than I already have. She is shaking, and she has scattered her pups like raw grains of rice across a kitchen floor.

A soft, brown lump of a puppy is spread across the ground only inches from me. It smells like the rusty old plow in Mr. Sutton's horse pasture, and I have to snap myself out of thinking about how everything goes to ruin.

I can reach the brown puppy now. I feel the smooth, silky sac that covers her fur like a thin layer of raw egg whites, slick and waxy and milky. It'd be beautiful, if it wasn't smothering her. I pick her up, and she wiggles in my hand, scaring me so much I almost let her drop. The mama is on me before I can scoot my way back out to the open air.

Her teeth are inches from my cheek, coated in a thick yellow paste that smells like all the dead things I find in the woods. She wrinkles her snout and growls from her gut, perking her ears and straightening her tail. I know better than to move. I stay real quiet and keep my eyes on the puppy until the mama dog drops back to the ground and rolls out one long warning. I rub the sticky sac off the puppy and shove her toward the mama, hoping the dog will understand how to take it from here, but she just keeps growling. I get the message.

I slide back out to the yard and squint my eyes. By now, the heavy gray clouds have moved into the far-off edges of the sky. The sun is shining white yellow again. I grab a long stick, thinking maybe if I chase the mama out from under the house, I can scrub the silver sacs from the babies and clean them in the washtub out back. I swing the stick at the dog, "Get! Get on out of here!" She lifts one of the pups in her jaws and carries it out into the yard. A little lump of life. The pup swings back and forth from the mama's teeth until it finally breaks one small leg through the sac. The mother digs a rough split in our yard and lets the tiny body drop into the fresh grave. The puppy lands with a hollow thud, like Jack's booted steps on the wooden front porch.

Then, digging her claws into the mud, the mother buries her baby alive. I scream. She growls. No rumble this time, but the fear-filled snarl of a mother. She buries baby after baby after baby, and as she digs, I dig too, uncovering each of the pups. One by one.

I waste no time at all. I tear through the slimy sacs, hoping there's still a way to save the puppies. When the stray realizes what I've done, she falls down. She won't look at me as I bring four babies back to her. The five dead ones I rebury, deeper, behind the house, where I hope no coyotes will dig them up for supper.

When I finally finish, I climb back high up in my tree and hope the mother will let her four babies live. I name them rose, twinkle, JuJuBee, and Belle. Dark-brown balls of matted hair.

Mama still sings from the kitchen, stirring the gravy, but she has shifted from blues to church hymns. "All to Jesus, I Surrender." I can't help but wonder if I looked like these pups when I was born and if Mama ever thought of burying me.


Excerpted from Into the Free by Julie Cantrell Copyright © 2012 by Julie Cantrell. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Julie Cantrell is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Into the Free, the 2013 Christy Award winning Book of the Year and recipient of the Mississippi Library Association’s Fiction Award. Cantrell has served as editor-in-chief of the Southern Literary Review and is a recipient of the Mississippi Arts Commission Literary Fellowship. Her second novel, When Mountains Move, won the 2014 Carol Award for Historical Fiction and, like her debut, was selected for several Top Reads lists. Visit her online at juliecantrell.wordpress.com, Facebook: juliecantrellauthor, and Twitter: @JulieCantrell.

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Into the Free 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 183 reviews.
LucilleCO More than 1 year ago
I received an advanced reader copy. 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. Her name is sure to become popular on reader's tongues.
JJEAA More than 1 year ago
"Into the Free" is a compelling novel that covers so many issues people are struggling with today. Set in Mississippi, author Julie Cantrell draws you into the troubled life of young Millie. Filled with abuse, depression, drug addiction, fear, hope, and so much more, you will not want to put this wonderful book down and you will find yourself impatiently waiting for a sequel to see what happens in Millie's world. I look forward to reading more of Julie Cantrell's amazing books! A truly talented author.
JadeWant More than 1 year ago
This is a heart-wrenching one about a young girl, Millie Reynolds, whose bleak world is shrouded in hatefulness, cruelty, and great pain and tries to overcome the insurmountable odds of being surrounded by a totally disreputable family. Her father is an alcoholic and is abusive; her mother is a worthless, unfeeling drug addict and what usually comes with this scenario is poverty. Her search for a better life tests her strength and faith in the depression era in Mississippi in 1936. This is worth the read but will test your endurance.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Milie overcomes horrific happenings im her life and comes out as a strong young woman in spite of them all. Throughout all the trials she learns how to feel God's love for her. Was disappointed when the book ended, would have liked to keep on reading about Millie
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Once I got into this book I couldn't put it down, except to recharge my nook. Millie's story will make laugh, cry, a range of emotions. One of the best books I have read on a long time.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The story had me looking back at my childhood and growing up in coal country western PA
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This brilliant novel holds you captive from its first words. The characters are beautiful and inspiring.
MRJR More than 1 year ago
The book has a worldly view of Christianity. In it, God disguises himself as a character's ghost. He watches from the sidelines as all sorts of terrible things happen to the main character. (***SPOILER ALERT The seventeen-year-old is raped in the church sanctuary by a "Christian" man.) I was also bothered by the mix of Christianity with other religions, meaning some of the characters seemed to believe in Jesus, but also seemed to practice other religions. It also portrayed that all Christians are hypocrites or weak in character unless they are poor. I knew this book would be depressing because of the subject matter, but I believed it was a Christian book since I was buying it in a Christian bookstore. It also had good reviews with a guaranteed good read sticker on it. I thought I could trust the Christian publisher, but I was wrong. Don't waste your money or your time on this book, it isn't worth it!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I absolutely could not put this book down! Couldn't wait to get home from work to read it! I hope there will be a sequel coming soon.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
excellent book, looking for the sequel next! Didn't want the story to end....
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Into the free is a great book about a girl named Millie who had been through a lot and learns to overcome her past at age sixteen. This great writing style makes this book impossible to put down. I totally recommend with a rating of five stars! I suggest you guys get this book while it's still free.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved, loved, loved this book! It was so hard to put it down. The author makes you fall in love with Millie, and keeps the reader surprised through out the book. It has been some time since a book has made me cry! This one tugged on many heart strings.
MrsRyan More than 1 year ago
...And sucks you into a world you can only imagine. Through the devastation, this poignant story comes through the eyes of a little girl who grows into a woman. The story takes you through her childhood, through prejudices, violence, poverty, abuse, and love. The most important aspect was how through it all she manages to find God. Hands down the BEST book I have read in a VERY long time.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The authors writing style is so fresh and original. Story was Written before but never like this..i hope to read more from this remarkable author.
Lvgolden More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not a book to read if you want to be uplifted! Lot's of tragedy and dark characters.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a wonderful book, well worth the time to read. Would also make a great movie.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Okay reead. A little preachy at rhe end
Fredreeca2001 More than 1 year ago
Let me start by saying....this is not my genre. I am not a Christian fiction fan. I find them overly dramatic and preachy. However, I met this author in the food truck line at Southern Festival of books in Nashville this year. I was very impressed. She informed me she would be at Square Books in Oxford, MS in January. I decided to give her a try before her appearance. Millie is a young girl from an abusive home during the depression era in Mississippi. She struggles to find the right path. When her parents die within several days of each other, this sends her life spiraling out of control. She has to come to terms and be strong to overcome. This is a tale about the true struggles in life and the strength needed to get through them. I absolutely loved Millie. She fights with strength she doesn't ever realize she has. All her trials and experiences help her grow and become the woman she wants to be. I enjoyed this story for the many aspects it portrayed about strength and endurance needed to succeed in life. I loved the setting and especially the part about the gypsies. This author is not afraid to show the hypocrisy in some Christians or the evil in people. This is one of the reasons I enjoyed this novel. Her characters were real and experienced real-life emotions with many different ups and downs. Very impressive. I am looking forward to her new novel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a book i will keep and read again
LWR189 More than 1 year ago
This book is full of mystery, tender moments, and brutality. Not what you might expect and keeps you guessing who's going to get the tragic central figure. I think you will love it as I did. Barnes & Nobles Reader, LWR
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A hauntingly sad but beautiful story, filled with lots of sorrow yet inspiring the reader to recognize God's grace and mercy in the face of hopelessness- An encouraging masterpiece of literature!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The only thing that got me to the end of this book was hope that it would have a satisfying end. It didn't. From the beginning it was hardship- a husband who beats his wife regularly- and nearly to death, dysfunctional family, drug addiction, poor living, death, more death, rape, and only the smallest of happy endings. It wasn't an escape read, it was so full of the darkness of life that it left me depressed at the end. I wouldn't recommend it.