Summary: “Those old cows knew trouble was coming before we did.” So begins the story of Lily Casey Smith, Jeannette Walls’s no-nonsense, resourceful, and spectacularly compelling grandmother. By age six, Lily was helping her father break horses. At fifteen, she left home to teach in a frontier town—riding five hundred miles on her pony, alone, to get to her job. She learned to drive a car and fly a plane. And, with her husband, Jim, she ran a vast ranch in Arizona. She raised two children, one who is Jeannette’s memorable mother, Rosemary Smith Walls, unforgettably portrayed in The Glass Castle.
Lily survived tornadoes, droughts, floods, the Great Depression, and the most heartbreaking personal tragedy. She bristled at prejudice of all kinds—against women, Native Americans, and anyone else who didn’t fit the mold. Rosemary Smith Walls always told Jeannette that she was like her grandmother, and in this true-life novel, Jeannette Walls channels that kindred spirit. Half Broke Horses is Laura Ingalls Wilder for adults, as riveting and dramatic as Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa or Beryl Markham’s West with the Night. Destined to become a classic, it will transfix readers everywhere. (summary from amazon.com - image from tower.com)
My Review: Lily is a tough old bird from the get-go. From the very first scene, I knew I was dealing with a force to be reckoned with, and I was enthralled at her descriptions. Walls has deemed this a “true life novel”, meaning that she’s retold the stories she remembers from her childhood as her grandmother and mother have told them. Since they’re not all 100% accurate, it is technically a novel, but I forgot that I wasn’t listening to Lily talk to me herself. Yes, listening. Walls has captured her voice so completely, I could hear her in my head (but those kind of voices are all right, right? Right?!), laughing along with me. Lily’s wisdom is timeless, and I’ve found some of her sayings following me around throughout the day.
Lily’s life certainly was colorful. She tells of her early childhood living in a dugout in West Texas, being her father’s right hand on the ranch, her schooling, teaching, her first “crumb-bum husband”, and the story of marrying Jim, running a ranch together, and raising their children. Her story ends, however, before I was ready, at the birth of the author. There was so much more I wanted to know – I felt like I was bidding everyone’s favorite eccentric, slightly-crazy great aunt goodbye. To Walls’ credit, she hasn’t glossed over some of the darker parts of her grandmother’s history, and it makes the novel more believable.
I have a pretty strong stomach when I read, but there are few things I can not stand; misrepresentation and child abuse. Unfortunately, I found both in this novel—Walls writes about her grandmother teaching the “Mormon” kids, and then spends a good page or two (faultily and derogatorily) rambling on about their beliefs and practices. Why did it rankle me so? The group she was teaching certainly wasn’t Mormon (rather, an offshoot hiding out in northern Arizona), and I get really defensive when those distinctions aren’t made. I could kind of understand it, since those distinctions weren’t necessarily clear in the 1920s, especially by people who didn’t care or want to know for certain, but still. A minute of research would have prevented an unnecessary and faulty explanation. It seriously didn’t add anything to the story. Second, Walls details twice that Lily beats a child beyond the point of control. Once it was her own daughter, and once it was a student of hers. Both instances were raw, difficult to read, but they served the purpose of showing some growth in Lily. However, it was really hard to swallow her “they deserved it” attitude.
My Rating: 4 Stars
For the Sensitive Reader: The language is mild, although there’s a little (1920s) spice, as the majority of the novel takes place on ranches. There are two instances of child abuse and a suicide.
Sum it Up: I’d recommend it as a great camping book, and it reads quickly as well. I think this would also make a really fun book club read.