30Authors: Julie Cantrell Recommends

September 11, 2016 Book Talk, Guest Post, Spotlight Author 2

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#30Authors is an event started by The Book Wheel that connects readers, bloggers, and authors. In it, 30 authors review their favorite recent reads on 30 blogs in 30 days. It takes place annually during the month of September and has been met with incredible support from and success in the literary community. It has also been turned into an anthology, which is currently available on Amazon and all author proceeds go to charity. Previous #30Authors contributors include Celeste Ng, Cynthia Bond, Brian Panowich, and M.O. Walsh. To see this year’s full line-up, visit www.thebookwheelblog.com/30authors or follow along on Twitter @30Authors.

Oh my dear friends are you in for a treat! I’ve been following Julie Cantrell’s writing career since I fell in love with Into the Free when it was shortlisted for the Inspy’s. Since then I’ve read all three of her books: Into the Free, When Mountains Move and The Feathered Bone. Julie weaves social justice issues throughout her novels. Into the Free {my review here} tackles child abuse and neglect along with parental depression in a time where these things were hidden under the proverbial rug. When Mountains Move is a testament to faith while dealing with breaking the abuse cycle, the aftermath of rape, and learning to trust . The Feathered Bone: human trafficking, emotional abuse, depression and again, faith that moves mountains.

When Allison at The Book Wheel asked me if I’d like to host Julie for #30Authors, I believe she might have heard me all the way across the country being all fan-girlish and shouting, “yes! yes! please!” Discovering the books favorite authors read and enjoy makes me feel like I’m getting an inside look. I hope you enjoy Julie’s review of Trials of the Earth as much as I did!

Julie Cantrell Recommends

trials of the earthWhen asked to review my “favorite recent read” for 30 Authors, I struggled to choose one title. An avid reader, I always find the task as impossible as naming my favorite child. There simply is no favorite. (Y’all can relate, can’t you?!)

Given the challenge, I snapped up some of the latest, greatest novels on my bedside table. I tore through the pages determined to find the perfect recommendation, but none shaped my soul the way some older releases had managed to do. Flustered, I turned to memoirs, my lifelong true love (truth be told).

As a last resort, I walked into a bookstore on the very day this review was due (ever the slacker). An eye-level book on the front shelf was Trials of the Earth: The True Story of a Pioneer Woman by Mary Mann Hamilton (Oh, to have that placement someday!). With its earth-toned landscape and contrasting stark-white silhouette, the cover called to me, and upon reading the description, I was hooked: “The powerful, only known first-person account of one woman’s struggles and triumphs taming the Mississippi Delta.”

“This is it,” I said to my friend who had been made aware of my hunt for the ideal book.

“Wanna look around a bit?” he suggested. “You might find something better.”

Two hours later, we returned to that front shelf and snagged Trials of the Earth, laughing as he claimed he would never doubt me again.

It was no surprise I selected this title. I’m a Louisiana native who lived in various parts of The States before relocating to Mississippi in 2004. My debut novel was set in the Delta and I am drawn to memoirs of strong women, particularly those who stray from expected social norms.

Mary’s story intrigued me for many reasons, so I read the preface and discovered it had been written in 1933 when a friend encouraged the narrator to pen her tale merely three years before her death. Unpublished for more than fifty years, the memoir eventually came to shelves through the University Press of Mississippi but was recently republished by Little, Brown and Company, finding its way to my hands and drawing a patter of my heart.

This story is a simple read, free of literary descriptions or detailed character development. In fact, the blunt plainness of the text is part of the appeal. It flows with an authentic, almost dry style that makes me want to peel the layers off and dig deeper into Mary’s heart. A tough survivor, she does not dwell on emotional details, even when she describes the loss of her father, brother, mother, sister, and four children. Life was hard. She accepted it as such and weathered each trauma with a grit reserved only for the most steadfast of spirits.

While I was interested in the day-to-day requirements necessary to navigate the countless perils of 19th-century Mississippi wilderness—particularly a scene in which the riverbanks began sloughing with rapid intensity forcing the homesteaders to frantically save their tent, raft, and gear from the encroaching waters as well as descriptive trials with mosquitoes, mill accidents, archaic medical practices, and a plethora of predators—it was Mary’s way of viewing the world that fascinated me most. I appreciate a book that allows me to experience life through a different lens, especially when that lens offers direct contrast to my way of seeing things. For example, while blatant prejudice was not displayed, it was clear from undertones that Mary considered “Negro” and Jewish people to be of little worth, and that she had a particular distaste for Baptists. These blanket criticisms were disturbing to read, but I appreciate that the history was preserved, revealing an uncensored portrayal of one woman’s mindset during that particular time period.

Equally interesting was Mary’s marriage. Time and again she wrote that she wasn’t sure if what she felt for her husband was “love.” In fact, she seemed to be co-dependent in the sense she was happiest when she felt needed, even if that required her husband to be ill, drunk, or broken. This was what Mary knew of love, and this is how she lived her life, serving and caring for the men and children while cooking for upwards to 120 boarders and millworkers and going through nearly “a barrel of flour” a day as the laborers cleared the land. She knew her strengths, and she was determined to provide for those under her care.

Mary was a hard worker, a practical minded housekeeper, and a family matriarch who took great pride in keeping up appearances. She didn’t mind if her husband drank too much, as long as he did it in the privacy of their own home. It seemed she was imprisoned at times by her own insecurities and felt most free when the family left the constraints of mainstream society to camp in the backwoods of the Mississippi swamplands. There she could be most herself, without as much worry about what other townsfolk thought of her. This speaks volumes about the pressures women felt both then, and now, as a result of social expectations.

Ultimately, this story is one that shines a positive light on a woman who accepted a different kind of normal. She was never afraid to stand up for herself or for those she loved, exhibiting a fierceness that saved her own life and the lives of countless others, no doubt. By following her husband into the rough country, Mary Mann Hamilton thrived, leaving a legacy for her descendants and continuing to give the family heirs reason to exalt her today.

A spunky, brave, and resilient pioneer, Mary Mann Hamilton gives us a window into a world that is at once distant and near, unique yet universal, ancient yet timeless. But above all else, she tells the story of one woman’s will to endure life’s greatest hurts, and that, my friends, is a story to which we can all relate.

Here’s to Mary Mann Hamilton and the women who came before us. Let’s share a toast to the strong ones.

Happy Reading!


About the Author

Julie CantrellJulie Cantrell is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Into the Free, a debut novel that earned both the Christy Award Book of the Year (2013) and the Mississippi Library Association’s Fiction Award. The sequel, When Mountains Move, was named a 2013 Best Read by LifeWay, was shortlisted for several awards, and won the 2014 Carol Award for Historical Fiction. Cantrell has served as editor-in-chief of the Southern Literary Review and is a recipient of the Mississippi Arts Commission Literary Fellowship. Her third novel, The Feathered Bone, released January 2016, earning a starred review by Library Journal.

Learn more about Julie on: Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads

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