Into the Free by Julie Cantrell
David C. Cook - Historical fiction with Christian elements
I've mentioned the fact that I considered giving up on Into the Free because I didn't think it had a very believable or solid sense of time and place. It's set in Mississippi during the Depression and WWII. Last night was my F2F group's meeting and it's always fascinating to find out just how wrong I am.
Everyone in the group loved Into the Free because it reminded them of their younger days in Mississippi and/or because they found the story gripping. While I felt completely at a loss as to where the book was set, two of the women in my group said they were certain it took place in Meridian (which is on the opposite side of the state from us, due east -- and according to Julie Cantrell's website, they're correct). Nods all around. Only two of us present were not native Mississippians, unless you count the one fellow who spent his first 14 years in Texas.
What's Into the Free about?
Into the Free is a coming-of-age story about a young girl in Mississippi. I looked up the word "bildungsroman" to see if it fits because I wasn't entirely certain and here's the bildungsroman definition I found at Wikipedia:
In literary criticism bildungsroman or coming-of-age story is a literary genre that focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood (coming of age) and in which character change is thus extremely important.
Yes, that certainly seems to fit. Told from the point of view of Millie, who lives in former slave quarters on a wealthy man's plantation, Into the Free is the story of how young Millie survives living in a home with an abusive father (seldom home from touring with the rodeo, but terrifying when he's present) and a mother who kills her pain and depression via morphine addiction. It's about young Millie's confusion, her struggle with belief in God, and her desire to escape. It's also about deciding between two young men who are both interested in her and willing to take her away but who are so very different that Millie struggles to decide whether to let her heart or her head lead her.
Millie has a rotten life, that's for certain. The book starts out with her mother fixing a meal and her father, Jack, coming home to find a ranch hand dropping off a supply of morphine for her mother, Marie. Jack beats Marie to a bloody pulp and throughout the book his anger is explained away as a response to her drug addiction, although she's apparently become addicted to painkillers because of the beatings. It's a bizarre Catch-22 and it didn't work for me, or rather I just couldn't get my mind wrapped around it. Millie's grandparents have rejected Marie and won't have anything to do with Millie, either, because Marie married a Native American instead of a banker.
This next bit contains some spoilers, so skip it if you want to be surprised.
At the beginning, Millie's best friend is the black man who lives in another of the slave cabins, their next-door neighbor. I didn't understand the symbolism but his ghost keeps returning to save her at odd moments. There's a tragic accident, a suicide, two young men who appeal to Millie for different reasons (one of them a gypsy) and yet another rape that I thought was blown off too easily. The women in my group disagreed. They said Millie had been through so much already that by the time she was raped, it was just one more bad thing that happened to her that she had to survive.
I think I'm done with spoilers. It's safe, now.
What I liked about Into the Free:
Into the Free is a quick read and once you get into it it's hard to put down. While everyone agreed it started out slowly and the beginning was a little cringe-worthy, you do eventually become sucked in by the story and the desire to know what will happen to Millie.
I particularly liked three male characters who allowed Millie to escape her horrible world, at least briefly. One was her neighbor, an elderly black widower who took young Millie fishing, put her to work feeding his chickens and was just generally a stable influence. The second person who came into her life and allowed her brief respite was a gypsy boy around her age, River. I can't tell you what happens with River without spoiling the story, apart from the fact that he has to leave and it's the fact that he will return in the spring that keeps her hanging on through tragedy. The third fellow is Kenneth, nicknamed "Bump", a veterinarian in training at the local rodeo, where Millie eventually gets a job. Bump is almost too perfect -- kind, gentle, generous, strong and patient. Millie has a crush on River but feels safe with Bump and therein lies a part of her dilemma.
What I disliked about Into the Free:
I guess the fact that I didn't grow up in Mississippi has a lot to do with my feeling that the book lacked a sense of time and place. It certainly seemed odd to me that Millie said the region wasn't impacted by the Depression. But, then, we really haven't felt the current recession the way many states have because Mississippi is pretty much a poor state all the time. Still, it threw me. I couldn't get a grip on where things were happening. I've never encountered gypsies and I didn't catch on to the symbolism because it's not something I've ever studied (I am always missing the symbolism, unfortunately). And, I thought the ending was rushed, one major incident totally blown off, and the return of River a let-down.
So, why did the people in my group love it?
They adored Millie (I did like her strength but I guess I was blinded by the fact that the story just felt off to me in so many ways) and the time and place were things that most of them could relate to, in some way. Even though none of the people in my group lived through the Depression or WWII, there were apparently still some major similarities between that time and their youths in rural and small-town Mississippi. The gypsies are very important to the book because Millie wants to escape with them; she desires to go "into the free" -- away from her life, out into the world -- with them and falls in love with one of them. They're kind to her and accepting. Most of the people in my group remembered the gypsies.
The really fun part about this F2F meeting:
It is ridiculously fun when the people in my F2F group start reminiscing about their early days in Mississippi. In this case, they got off on a tangent about the gypsies. They said the gypsies were treated like any other outsiders, with suspicion. One of the ladies said she recalled the news about the gypsies' arrival traveling by word of mouth and how everyone reminded each other to bring in the dogs because the gypsies were thieves. "Sure enough, some dogs would go missing every time the gypsies came through," she said. "And, they said the gypsies would come in and steal your babies if you didn't watch out."
Another woman chimed in and said her grandmother knew someone who had a baby stolen by the gypsies, or so they assumed. The child was never seen, again.
The woman next to me, whom we'll refer to as "A.", is originally from Wisconsin and actually lived in my hometown in Oklahoma for a time. She added her thoughts about what it's like to move into small-town Mississippi life from outside. There was a lot of laughter as we talked about things like greeting someone with "Hey," instead of "Hello," which we were both taught was extremely rude and which both of us now use as a greeting. My F2F group can get really enthusiastic about books but they are very open and accepting of each other's opinions, whether or not they agree. They're much the same about listening to our stories about what it's like to be a foreigner in Mississippi. They're just a super bunch of people and the discussion of Into the Free was rollicking fun.
Off the book and into the food:
One of the ladies brought some "Vidalia onion dip". Our group usually just sips wine or water and there are always a couple bowls of nuts, but we're not a group that usually brings food to meetings, so that was unusual. At some point, I asked what exactly was in that dish. It had gotten shoved to the far end of the table and I was curious.
A. pulled it over to me, told me what was in the dip and said, "You must try it. It's addictive." I scooped some onto a cracker and pushed the dish away and A. said, "Oh, no, you don't want to push it away. You'll want more, after you take that first bite."
She was correct. I weaseled a sort-of recipe out of the lady who brought it -- two Vidalia onions chopped in a food processor, two cups of shredded Swiss cheese and "a teaspoon or two of mayonnaise - just a squirt to bind it all," baked till the onion has carmelized, which I'm told is the tricky part. I rolled up a couple bites' worth in a napkin and brought it home for Huzzybuns to try because I figured if he tasted it, he'd figure out a way to make it. I got chewed out for not saving a bite for Kiddo. Oops.
And, then Kiddo kept me up chatting till 2:00 or 2:30 because he was in a chipper mood, which I always love. I am tired but very happy, today -- so glad I didn't abandon the book because last night's meeting was by far one of the most entertaining meetings I've attended.
Julie Cantrell lives in Oxford, MS. Lucky chick.