Young Millie Reynolds must confront the past and overcome her family’s long history of destructive choices before finding her own path to freedom.
“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
- Gale Cengage Learning
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- Large Print Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 5.60(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.10(d)
Read an Excerpt
Into the Free
By Julie Cantrell
David C. CookCopyright © 2012 Julie Cantrell
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMarch 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.
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