Monday, December 27, 2010

"Half Broke Horses" by Jeanette Walls

Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Walls
Published October 2009 by Simon & Schuster
Source: I bought this one to read with the Omaha Bookworms

Lily Casey Smith was Jeanette Walls grandmother and this is her story, largely based on the stories Walls heard from and about her grandmother.  But because her grandmother died when Walls was only seven, much of Walls has also had to fill in many of the details so the subtitle of this book is "A True Life Novel."

Lily is a character in every sense of the word.  We first are introduced to Lily at an age when today's children would be in their first year of education.  Instead Lily is working with her father to break horses on the family's ranch.  Her mother is entirely ill-equipped to deal with life on the frontier in turn-of-the-last century Texas.  She must often be revived with smelling salts due largely to the fact that she insists on lacing herself up so tightly; she also flat refused to do most chores.

Because of one of her father's never ending schemes, Lily's family was only able to send her to school for one semester but it was enough to convince Lily that she wanted to be a school teacher. When she was only fifteen, knowing that her brother would inherit the ranch and having passed a test that enabled her to teach, Lily left the ranch for a teaching job with nothing but her horse and a few provisions.  Twenty eight days later, she finally arrived.
"I became known as Lily Casey, the mustang-breaking, poker-playing, horse-race-winning schoolmarm of Coconimo County and it wasn't half bad to be in a place where no one had a problem with a woman having a moniker like that."
Lily lived the rest of her days with the same spunk and courage.  She learned drive early and fly a plane, she raced horses, peddled bootleg liquor from under her son's crib to make ends meet, and worked harder than most men ever have.  She also brooked no excuses, stood for no prejudice, and expected her own children to work every bit as hard as Lily and their father did.

"The problem with half-broke horses like these was that no one took the time to train them.  Cowboys who could ride anything caught them and ran them on fear, spurring and quirting them too hard, taking pride in staying on no matter how desperately they bucked and fishtailed."

Unfortunately, despite her best efforts, Lily never was able to break Walls' mother, Rosemary.  The result was chronicled in Wall's memoir The Glass Castle.  I haven't read that book but I've heard enough about it to be surprised early on in this one that a woman like Lily could have raised a woman like Rosemary.  But as the book went on, I began to see how it might have happened.  Lily was hard on everyone and thought nothing of doling out a good beating, even with her students.  She once beat Rosemary so severely that even Lily felt she had gone too far.  Once she also involved Rosemary in spying on her own father when Lily was trying to determine if her husband was cheating on her.

This book grabbed my attention from the beginning as Walls explained how Lily and her siblings had survived a flash flood.  But as the book went on, I began to tire of the stories. That was in part because I started to lose some of the admiration I had for Lily as she began to make decisions that I questioned. But mostly it felt like Walls was working too hard to convince me that her grandmother was a tough old bird, capable to adjusting and surviving anything.  Things also began to seem repetitive.  In fact, Walls frequently had her grandmother referring to her first husband, always as "my crumb-bum first husband."

Was it worth reading?  Definitely.  Lily Smith lead an amazing life and the book certainly made for an interesting discussion with the rest of my book club.


  1. I liked this book a lot --different from her first book, but still very good.

  2. I listened to this one, which, I think, made it more enjoyable for me. I didn't love it, but I do think I liked it better having listened to it than I would have if I'd read it. Not as good as The Glass Castle!

  3. This sounds so good. I've actually never read Walls, but feel like I should since her books always seem to get great reviews.

  4. I wrote in my review that I liked the short chapters! It was quite readable and I admire Walls' writing talent.

    Happy New Year!

  5. I often wondered why Jeannette's parents turned out to have such horrendous parenting skills. I guess her mother rebelled against this formidable woman.

  6. My mom was just telling me to read this one the other day. I loved The Glass Castle, so I woul read this one for that reason alone.

  7. Definitely a great book club pick. I would generally not pick this one up, but now I would definitely wnt to read it too!