Into the Free
Cantrell’s outstanding debut is no ordinary coming-of-age novel. For Millie Reynolds, daughter of a downtrodden, morphine-addicted mother and a wife-beating, half-Choctaw father, poverty, depression, and abuse are all part of the tragic inheritance she faces. As a nine-year-old child living in a shack in 1936 rural Mississippi, Millie takes shelter from her problems by hiding out in a sweet gum tree, watching the world go by from its tall branches. When circumstances deprive her of her only friend, a grandfatherly neighbor, she looks desperately for someone to trust.
The unique characters brim with authenticity. Millie, at sixteen, narrates the remainder of her story in a strong voice full of grit and yearning. She feels much older than her years, and she dreads the violent scenes that result whenever Jack (whom she refuses to call “father”) comes home from the rodeo. A Romany tribe that passes through town every spring gives her the key to unlock her mother’s history, but some puzzles still remain. She falls for a handsome gypsy who quotes from Steinbeck and the Bible, but their romance stalls because he has to keep moving.
The plot is never less than absorbing, even during its most wrenching moments. Cantrell is particularly gifted at describing twisted family dynamics and the conflicted feelings they create. Millie doesn’t always make wise decisions, but she’s smart enough to see bigotry and false piety as they affect her, and she never stops trying to see the good in people. The novel’s background imagery is vivid and appropriate to her situation. Nature, just like humanity, can be both beautiful and cruel.
With the support of those who care for her and her growing self-worth, Millie learns she can acknowledge and understand her past without needing to relive it. The inspirational themes strengthen the book without being overpowering. Highly recommended.