Half-Broke Horses: A True Life Novel by Jeannette Walls is a difficult book to categorize. Officially, it is a novel, but in fact, much of the story is memoir-like non-fiction. Many readers are familiar with Walls as the author of the stunning memoir, The Glass Castle, about her childhood with two irresponsible free-spirit parents that led to homelessness and hunger much of the time. Half-Broke Horses is a prequel, of sorts.
It is the story of Walls’ grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, the independent and strong-willed woman who brought up Walls’ mother, Rosemary, told in the same straightforward, honest way that made The Glass Castle such a hit. It is officially fiction because Walls had to fill in some of the details with her imagination, but the facts of her life are based on hard research: diaries, other written sources, and countless interviews with her mother and others who knew Lily.
Lily Casey Smith grew up in west Texas, in a homestead set amid an inhospitable region. Her father was something of a dreamer (a family trait!) and her mother a fragile woman better suited to mansions than ranches, so Lily had to take on a lot of hard work and responsibility for herself, her two younger siblings, and the ranch at an early age. They fled their home when a tornado caused irreparable damage. To give you an idea of their hardscrabble life, here are her father’s thoughts at the time:
“Dad started cussing up a blue streak. Life, he declared, had cheated him once again. “If I owned hell and west Texas,” he said, “I do believe I’d sell west Texas and live in hell.”
Lily’s life did not become any easier after they moved to New Mexico. She was a remarkably independent young woman for the times (or even by today’s standards). At the age of just 15, without a high school diploma, she traveled 500 miles alone – with nothing but a horse, a bedroll, one dress, and a change of underwear – to take on a teaching position in an isolated town in Arizona.
As Lily explained after her single year of Catholic boarding school, women at that time had three career choices – nurse, teacher, secretary – and here are her thoughts on those choices:
“I didn’t want to be a nurse, not because I was bothered by the sight of blood but because sick people irritated me. I didn’t want to be a secretary because you were always at the beck and call of your boss, and what if it turned out you were smarter than him? It was like being a slave without the security.But being a teacher was entirely different. I loved books. I loved learning. I loved that “Eureka!” moment when someone finally figured something out. And in the classroom, you got to be your own boss. Maybe teaching was my Purpose.”
So, she set out on her own at age 15 to pursue that purpose. Later, her life took her as far as Chicago and eventually back to the arid ranch lands of Arizona. Along the way, she broke wild horses, suffered two devastating personal losses, learned to fly a plane, made extra money as a bootlegger, and raised two children, Little Jim and Rosemary, who would one day become Jeannette Walls’ mother.
Lily’s story is absolutely fascinating all on its own, the story of a vibrant pioneer woman who followed her own path and did many amazing things during her long lifetime. But her life is even more captivating as the backdrop for Walls’ earlier memoir. As soon as I finished Half-Broke Horses, I wished I still had The Glass Castle so I could re-read that and make the connections between Rosemary’s upbringing and the mother of Jeannette’s memoir (my mother did re-read Walls’ earlier book as soon as she finished!).
Like The Glass Castle, Half-Broke Horses is remarkably well-written. Wall wrote it in the first-person, from her grandmother’s perspective. As you can see by the brief excerpts included in this review, Lily’s personality (and Walls’ writing talent) comes shining through, and she tells her story with honesty and humor. Everyone in our neighborhood book group enjoyed reading it; it received an average rating of 7.7 out of 10 among our members – a high rating for us – and several people (myself included) rated it a 9. I can’t wait to see what Walls comes up with next!