Saturday, April 23, 2011

Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls

When an author writes a book that is smashingly popular, i.e., Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, I tend to avoid their next book, suspecting that the publisher is capitalizing on the author’s momentum to sell inferior work. I loved The Glass Castle; had put Walls on a pedestal; and didn’t want to be disappointed by Half Broke Horses. I wasn’t.

It didn’t take long for Walls to hook me. First sentence out the chute told me she knew about animals, “Those old cows knew trouble was coming before we did.” Then on page six she revealed that the subject of her book, her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, was born in West Texas near the Pecos River. So was I. Lily was a horsewoman born in 1901. My mom Willie was a horsewoman born in 1907.

Story goes like this. Lily Casey was born in a sod house on a desolate Texas prairie to a couple of eccentric parents (mom a wannabe “Lady,” dad preoccupied with litigation over disputed land). Even as a small child seems Lily had more sense then the rest of the family put together. As she said, “I used to break horses. I know how to take a fall.”

After the family moved to New Mexico, Lily was sent to boarding school in Santa Fe, but her father blew the tuition money on four Great Danes, which he saw as an investment. So at the age of 15, Lily strides her half broke horse Patches and rides 28 days, by herself, to northern Arizona to take a job teaching in a one-room schoolhouse. And although she drinks, races horses for money and plays a mean hand of poker, she gets fired for telling Mormon girls they have a choice. Click on Read More Below...

She ends up in Chicago, where she marvels at the amount of water in Lake Michigan, and observes that where she came from “people measure water by the pail.” Lily unknowingly marries a bigamist, divorces, moves back to New Mexico, marries again, moves to Phoenix but hates city life, manages a huge ranch,  and teaches school and gets fired again – this time for taking in her pregnant unmarried sister - which ends tragically. She also has kids, one of which is Walls mentally ill mother in The Glass Castle. Lilly sells moonshine, turns a hearse into a country taxi, teaches school and gets fired again, and eventually gets her masters degree. (Sorry! my editor is on holiday today.)

(Lily's sister Helen, below,  tried to make it in Hollywood)
The writing is as unpretentious as the lives of the people portrayed. For example, early in the book, Lily meets a half-Navaho woman and they camp one night and ponder the idea of traveling together. When Lily awakes to find the woman going through Lily’s things the following dialogue ensues:
Lily – “I got nothing worth stealing.”
Woman – “I figured you didn’t, but had to make sure. Thing is, I don’t get a lot of opportunities, and when one comes along, I got to take it.”
Lily – Holding her revolver on the woman, “You stay here.”
Woman – “Sure thing.”
Lily saddled up and moved on.

I also got a kick out of some of the characterizations – whisky was “panther piss,” a horse was “as gentle as a baby’s fart” or “a tad scutchy and head-shy,” indoor toilets were “unsanitary,” people who gave their ranches fancy names “didn’t know the first thing about ranching,” St. Nick was “the patron saint of department stores,” and cars were better than horses because they “don’t need to be fed if they aren’t working, and they don’t leave big piles of manure laying around everywhere.”

Walls (pictured to the right) describes her book as “A True-Life Novel,” and admits that her knowledge about her grandmother was purely based upon stories shared by other family members, so although I loved Lily Casey’s larger than life character, some of the reviews I read were critical of Walls depiction, and pointed to some inaccuracies. I understand that characters and stories tend to get inflated and bent with time and flawed memories. OK by me – it makes for good storytelling. When Oprah publicly barbequed James Frey, author of A Thousand Little Pieces for inaccuracies in his book, it sort of pissed me off. Gimmeabreak - it’s not testimony before the Senate, it’s a book!

Half Broke Horses is chocked full of interesting, funny, tragic and inspiring stories, and although I tend to think I liked it because of my personal points of reference and the way it parallels my mom’s life, it is such a popular book, my connection is obviously not unique.

If you’ve read The Glass Castle, or even if you haven’t, what you’ll realize pretty quickly if you read Half Broke Horses is that Jeannette Walls entire family is a herd of half broke horses – but then aren’t we all?

My husband took the below photo of me reading Half Broke Horses on my outdoor hanging bed because I so rarely lie down or hold a book (I most often listen to them on my iPod when in my car.) Even the dogs were confounded. Yes, I'm in my pajamas! It was lovely!


  1. Book sounds fabulous, but did you tell the entire plot, storyline? I read it, will anything be new? Different? Better? I sure didn't know Mommy was a horsewoman. Remember her as a lady, teacher, in her suits, gloves and "pumps," not boots. Jane

  2. This is one of those books that you can't "spoil" by telling the plotlines. It's about the writing and the joy of getting to know the characters.

    Sorry I spilled so much info though - too much coffee and my "editor" was on vacation! Ha!

    Yes, mom (mommy) was a horsewoman when they had the ranch outside of town. JS's memories of her are most about her riding out to round up the cow to milk or other stock for varied reasons. I never knew her as a horsewoman either as we'd moved into town by the time I was born.