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Tall Poppy Review: A Heroine Ventures “Into the Free”

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It’s hard to place Into the Free (Thomas Nelson) into one genre. The novel plays with conventions common to historical fiction and coming-of-age parables, but Julie Cantrell delivers a wholly unique story in her novel.

From high in the branches of her favorite sweet gum tree, Millie Reynolds watches a long black train slice through the fields that surround the hovel where she lives with her “nothing mama” and abusive father.

She calls down to her friend and elderly neighbor, Sloth, and asks him where he thinks the train is going.

“Into the free,” he says.

Millie imagines “the free” as a place far different from her Depression-era Mississippi existence, where nine year old girls like her “aren’t afraid of their fathers. Where mothers don’t get the blues. Where Mr. Sutton doesn’t own the whole wide world.” She climbs higher, willing the train to turn around and take her with it into “the free.”

For years, Millie suffers under the yoke of poverty, trauma, and abuse, always believing there is something better out there for her, always feeling as though it’s just outside of her grasp.

When she is sixteen, Millie gets the wish she made that day high up in the tree, but it’s not a train that takes her away. Instead, she’s swept up with a band of roving gypsies who move through town each spring. Captivated by their charm and whimsy and unabashed freedom, Millie finally leaves home.

“The free” isn’t what Millie expects. It is exhilarating, yes, but also treacherous. Full of opportunity, and at the same time danger. The unique cast of characters Millie meets there, from gypsies to rodeo cowboys and farmers, offer her something else: a way to unlock the long-buried secrets of her past – secrets her mother never wanted found. Along the way, Millie learns that “the free” isn’t necessarily a physical location; through love, forgiveness, and resilience, she discovers it’s been inside of her all along.

In a lesser author’s hands, a story that tackles such tough issues might feel depressing or overwrought, but Cantrell’s is a deft touch. Her prose is achingly beautiful – poetic and lyrical. Her characters are intricate and complex, and the descriptions of the 1940s South are brimming with authenticity and richness. Millie’s faith in humanity, in God, and ultimately in herself creates powerful undercurrents of hope that buoy the story and leaves the reader thinking long after the last page has been turned.

If you enjoyed Kathryn Stockett’s The Help or Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin, you’re going to love Julie Cantrell’s Into the Free.

Into the Free is now available for purchase.


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About Julie Cantrell

Julie Cantrell is an award-winning New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling novelist whose work focuses on relationships and resilience. As a writer, teacher, and TEDx presenter, she aims to build empathy and connection while inspiring others to live their best life. Her debut novel, Into the Free, earned a starred review by Publishers Weekly, the Mississippi Library Association’s Fiction Award, and the Christy Award Book of the Year. It also was named a Best Read of 2012 by USA TODAY, while becoming an international bestseller. The sequel, When Mountains Move, was named a 2013 Best Read by USA TODAY, a finalist for numerous awards, and winner of the Carol Award for Historical Fiction. Her third novel, The Feathered Bone was selected as an Okra Pick by SIBA and Book of the Year by Pulpwood Queens. A finalist for three literary awards, including the Southern Book Prize, it won the Carol Award for Contemporary Fiction and earned a starred review by Library Journal, who also named it a Best Book of 2016. Perennials, her fourth novel, has been recognized as a top read of 2017 by Redbook Magazine, Southern Living Magazine, REAL SIMPLE, and USA TODAY HEA. In addition to receiving praise from Publishers Weekly and CBA Market Magazine, Perennials also has been named a Top Pick by RT Reviews and an Okra Pick by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance.

A certified speech-language pathologist, naturalist, and previous organic farmer, Cantrell has served as editor-in-chief of the Southern Literary Review. She is a recipient of the Mississippi Arts Commission Literary Fellowship as well as the Mary Elizabeth Nelson Fellowship at Rivendell Writers’ Colony, and she was named a 2017 finalist for the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Fiction Award. A mother of two, Julie writes from her home in Oxford, Mississippi.



Erin Celello is the author of MIRACLE BEACH (Penguin/NAL 2011) and LEARNING TO STAY (Penguin/NAL 2013). She has an MFA in fiction from Northern Michigan University and is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband, two young children, and two unruly Vizslas. Purchase/order Erin’s books from her local Madison independent bookseller Mystery to Me.

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