Millie has grown up watching the Romany travelers make their yearly trek through her Mississippi town and on into the free. She longs to leave her abusive father and poverty-stricken life behind and follow them, but who would care for Mama if she goes? When tragedy swallows Millie’s family, she’s left with only the memory of her mother’s faith to guide her. A window into her father’s secret life opens to Millie, and she finds an unexpected community among his friends. As the day draws near for the Romany to return and the one person Millie has counted on to save her will appear, she finds herself torn between the life she always wanted and the life she’s learning to embrace. She’ll have to choose one path, and hope it’s the one that leads away from the long history of abuse in her family.
The prose in this story is heart-achingly beautiful. It’s no wonder the first edition of this title won the Christy Award back in 2013. Millie’s relationships are deeply developed and complex, from her friendship with the older man, Sloth, who lives next door to her family, to her relationships with each of her parents in the midst of the abuse that takes place between them.
I felt like Millie’s reactions to things, especially early on through the middle of the story definitely fit with my picture of her as the victim of and witness to abuse. There’s one moment late in the story in which something really big happens, and I felt like Millie’s reaction is much too small and she moves on much too fast. (I’m hoping that in the sequel, we get a better understanding of why this happened and how she didn’t move on the way she might want us to think she did.)
I had a bit of a hard time with the romance of the story. I wanted it to follow an entirely different course, so I had a hard time adjusting when it didn’t follow that course. Eventually I came to understand and respect Millie’s choice, but again, the part of the story where she actually makes her choice for her future felt rushed or forced, and the jilted lover is kind of like, aww, man. Yeah, okay. So I wasn’t sure what to do with that. Did he not care about her the way I thought he did? What was that supposed to mean? Regardless, by that point I was okay with her choosing the other option, so maybe it was okay.
The sequel crosses into a more new adult story, following Millie into her new marriage and watching her deal with the unresolved issues of her past in the context of marriage. I’m really eager to see how that story unfolds. The idea reminds me a little bit of Joy in the Morning by Betty Smith (who also wrote A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, one of my favorite classics.)
Millie and River sneak away from the gypsy camp and kiss. She feels alive inside when she’s with him, and even spends one night asleep beside him in a field.
Millie suffers a trauma (see spoiler section if you want to know details.) A wise woman tells her that you want to marry someone who is steady and safe, not someone who makes you head-over-heels crazy about them. She reads this advice as true especially considering what happened when her mother risked everything to marry her father.
Millie’s grandfather is a preacher who is all about rules. Millie’s mom has a deep faith in God despite the fact that she lives the life of an outcast. There’s a strong theme throughout the story in which a living spiritual faith is juxtaposed against rule-oriented religion. Millie rejects the empty rule-bound religion and clings to the memory of her mother quoting scripture and her messages about God’s love for people.
Millie’s dad beats her mother, once so badly that she has to be hospitalized.
Millie’s mother uses a morphine-like medication to relieve pain from injuries and also to escape emotional pain. It nearly costs her life.
Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.
SPOILER ALERT AND TRIGGER WARNING
A man rapes Millie. It’s not deeply described, but Millie’s response is included, and reading that was rough. Sensitive readers should take caution. Afterward, she is angry, but she puts the whole event aside very quickly to pursue a romantic relationship with a boy who loves her. I felt like that all happened very quickly. I wasn’t sure I really believed a girl who’d been raped so recently would immediately take off and offer to marry someone. It sounds like the sequel deals more deeply with this experience, so that might explain why Millie shoved it aside so abruptly and show her need for healing.