Eagle Designs
Julie Cantrell

A speech-language pathologist and literacy advocate, Julie Cantrell was recently the editor in chief of the Southern Literary Review and currently teaches English as a second language to elementary students. She has been a freelance writer for ten years and has published two Christian children’s books. Julie and her family live in Mississippi where they operate Valley House Farm. Julie served as contributing editor to MOMSense magazine and wrote content for Mothers of Preschoolers, Intl. for nearly a decade. Additionally, she has contributed to more than a dozen books. Her first novel, Into the Free, hits shelves 02-01-2012. Learn more by visiting www.juliecantrell.com.

Genre Happenings

A Gypsy Camp

Imagine the year is 1915. A band of Gypsies have camped for the night. They are near a small, southern town called Coatopa, Alabama.

But this is not your ordinary group of travelers. These migrate with the king of the Romany Nation, Emil Mitchell. His wife is in labor, struggling to deliver her fifteenth child.

Rain starts to fall. The king is pacing outside of the family wagon. A fire smolders in the wet air as mothers hug their children, try to keep quiet, and offer prayers to save their queen. Her name is Kelly Mitchell, but some call her Callie. Spelling doesn’t matter, as most of them don’t know how to read. Or write. But they do know when something isn’t right, and the screams coming from the queen’s wagon give them reason to worry.

King Emil is distraught. He loves his wife and now realizes she is dying. He is desperate. Afraid. He climbs onto the seat of the wagon and urges the horses to pull hard and fast.

He heads straight to the nearest home he can find, but no one can help. He offers money, jewels, goats. Still, no one can help. He does this again. And again. And again, offering everything he owns to everyone he finds, but no one can save the queen.

Finally, he reaches a city. There, in Meridian, Mississippi, he finds doctors. He offers everything, knowing friends will pitch in. Five thousand dollars. Ten thousand. It doesn’t matter. It is too late.

The king arranges a service for his beloved bride, and to his surprise, the Mississippi townsfolk welcome them. For days they wait as more than 20,000 Romany travelers make their way to this town. The university band joins them, playing music as a funeral wagon rolls through the streets, carrying the Gypsy queen from the church to the burial site on Rose Hill.


From Fact to Fiction

The fascinating story is one I had never heard as a child growing up in Louisiana. But when I found an old Meridian Dispatch newspaper article about this event, I was hooked.

I wanted to know more about the travelers and about Kelly Mitchell. So I started reading, questioning, and researching this incredible bit of history. I wanted the queen to be known. I wanted her story to be told.

But as I dug deeper, I was disappointed to find limited information. And much of what had been recorded was contradictory or exaggerated. Despite many reports, it was difficult to find a complete story.

So, I decided to take those kernels of truth and fill in the rest. That’s how my debut novel, Into the Free, was born.

Into the Free

The Romany travelers are now a smaller thread within a complex tale about a girl named Millie Reynolds. She grows up in a fictional town called Iti Taloa, Mississippi. She befriends a few of the travelers who caravan through town each year to pay homage to their fallen king and queen. And the story goes from there.

It is a novel, which means it is completely a fictional tale, and it’s ultimately a story about hope, faith, and forgiveness. But it all started in a Gypsy camp in 1915, where a woman was in labor in a remote field near Coatoapa, Alabama.


It’s long been said that truth is stranger than fiction, so it’s no surprise that many novelists pull ideas from real events. Lisa Wingate’s Dandelion Summer is stacked around factual details about our nation’s moon missions in the 1960s. Terri Blackstock’s Intervention series stems from her journey through her own daughter’s drug addiction, and Francine Rivers’s The Atonement Child is based on her personal abortion experience.

Writers are told time and time again to “write what you know.” I agree whole-heartedly with that slice of advice, and I certainly followed it in Into the Free. But I’m adding to it. I say, write about what you know . . . or what you want to know more about. After all, there’s no better fuel for a fire than curiosity. It will keep you coming back to the keyboard night after night.


Into The Free