I met Julie Cantrell in Oxford, Mississippi a couple of years ago… can’t remember exactly when, but it seems we’ve ended up in good company several times… the last time I remember was with Neil White, Scott Cairns, Deb Mashburn, Sarah Hodges, Doug McLain and others at Waltz on the Square after Scott’s reading at Square Books last April. Julie was nice enough to help me promote the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop last fall by publicizing it in the Southern Literary Review, when she served as editor-in-chief.
Every time I’m around Julie, I feel a kindred spirit. And now I know why.
Her novel, Into the Free—which launches Tuesday night at Square Books in Oxford—is a book I wish I had written. It’s not just Julie’s literary prose that I applaud (and envy), it’s the way she brings the magical and the mystical into the everyday lives of her characters—in this case people from my home state of Mississippi.
And not just any people—she captures young Millie Reynolds’ plight with brave candor, holding back nothing as she paints for us the many layers of Millie’s wounded depression-era family. But even as she describes her father’s abuse and her mother’s madness, and family secrets are revealed along the way, she always points towards the light—towards hope. Sometimes that hope comes in the form of a tree named Sweetie and a two-toed man named Sloth. And in even more unexpected places—a band of gypsies that travel through Millie’s town.
Julie did extensive research into the culture of the gypsies, and she’s careful to explain that the term, “gypsy,” is considered derogatory by the people who prefer to be known as travelers or Romany. But she has the townspeople called them gypsies in the book, because that’s what they would have been called at the time. Cher gave a fairly accurate portrayal of how others saw the Romany in her 70s hit, “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves.”
The only time that I remember ever seeing Romany travelers was in Italy in 2010. My husband and I were warned by a guide in Rome to watch out for them—that they were beggars and pickpockets. The few that I saw were beautiful people, both young and old, and I found myself wishing that I had spoken to them after we left Italy. I was fascinated with their clothes and their striking eyes and haunting expressions.
Outsiders. Gypsies aren’t the only people who have been marginalized by society, of course. But what a great choice Julie has made to paint their colorful lives into this book about breaking free from the past and embracing our own people’s truths in order to become who we really are.
My mother is from Meridian, Mississippi (where I lived for a couple of years when I was about three and four) and I was fascinated to read in Julie’s journal that Rose Hill Cemetery—where my grandparents are buried—also contains the graves of Emil and Kelly Mitchell, the “King and Queen of the Gypsies” in that area. I wish I had known this the last time I took my mother to visit her parents’ graves, back in the late 90s.
Mom has Alzheimer’s now and lives in a nursing home, but maybe I’ll make a “pilgrimage” back to Rose Hill Cemetery in Meridian one day and look for all of those graves. My grandmother lived a couple of blocks from a little grocery story in Meridian called Culpepper’s. Mamaw and I would walk there every day when I visited her in the summer in the 50s and early 60s. And now I discover a photographer named Nathan Culpepper has photographed Rose Hill Cemetery. I wonder if his people owned that little grocery store….
But back to the novel. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but I have to say that I was brought to tears at points in the story because of my personal experience with sexual abuse and mental health issues in my own family growing up in Mississippi. I was impressed with the way Julie peopled the book with upper-class folks, rodeo trash and strict religious types without overly stereotyping each group. Whenever a fiction writer tries to get to the heart of any people and reveal them to the world, she risks offending someone in the process. Katherine Stockett has certainly taken some heat for her portrayal of both the Junior Leaguers and their African-American maids in The Help, but most every one I know who, like me, grew up in Jackson in the 50s and 60s agrees that she did, indeed capture a culture with all its beauty and ugliness.
Julie has done the same with an earlier and more economically stressed time in Mississippi. Whether she’s drawing for us a beguiling gypsy boy named River, a half-Choctaw alcoholic father named Jack or a rodeo veterinarian named Bump, she shows us their multifaceted humanity in such a way that we care about each of them, whether we love them or hate them. We care. And that’s what a novelist sets out to achieve. And the way she captures Millie’s voice, first as a six-year-old, and later as a teenager and adult, calls to mind Harper Lee’s character, Scout, in To Kill a Mockingbird. It takes a gifted hand to grow the character’s voice so skillfully as she ages throughout the book.
I can’t wait to get to Oxford for the launch party at Off Square Books Tuesday afternoon at 5 p.m. and celebrate with Julie! Check her site for places to get your own copy, which includes an author interview and notes for book clubs. You don’t want to miss this book!