Monday, July 12, 2010

Book Review: Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls

Half Broke Horses
by Jeannette Walls
Scribner, a division of Simon and Schuster
272 pages

Almost every person I've talked to about this book has said, almost in a cautionary way, something to the effect of "this isn't The Glass Castle."

I think such comments are interesting because like The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls' first book, Half Broke Horses is also an incredibly gripping story filled with scenarios and a lifestyle so different than anything I've ever experienced and could not possibly imagine.  Some have mentioned that this starts out slow, but I must be in the minority because like The Glass Castle, this story had me right from the first line. ("Those old cows knew trouble was coming before we did.")

Half Broke Horses is described as a "true life novel" based on the life of Lily Casey Smith, Jeannette Walls' maternal grandmother.

And what a life Lily led! This woman was truly a character, in every wonderful sense of the word.  For most of this book, the word that kept coming to mind as I read was gumption. Lily had such sheer gumption, chutzpah, determination, wit, and inner resourcefulness that allowed her to get through challenges that would have befallen many a lesser person.  For example, when the reader first meets Lily, she's a young girl clinging to the branches of a tree during a stormy night, protecting and reassuring her brother and sister as a flash flood races below the trio.

That scene sets the stage for many of the adventures and experiences that happened during Lily's incredible life, one where her pull-herself-up-by-her-bootstraps mentality (and when necessary, a handy pearl-handled revolver) allowed her to survive challenges far greater than on any reality show.

Growing up on a ranch, Lily begins helping her father "break horses," a metaphor that is used not only for the title but throughout the book in connection with various situations and characters.

"None of the males was gelded. They were unshod, with chipped-up hooves in terrible need of trimming, and their manes and tails were matted with burrs. They were also scared, watching us nervously and clearly wondering what sort of dreadful end these humans had in store for them.

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. Not properly broken, they were always scared and hated humans. A lot of times the cowboys released them once the roundup was over, but by then they'd lost some of the instincts that kept them alive out in the desert. They were, however, intelligent and had pluck, and if you broke them right, they made good horses." (pg. 48-49).

Speaking of instincts that keep one alive in the desert, one of the most fascinating parts of this book to me was when Lily, at 15 years old, took a teaching job 500 miles away from her family's ranch.  With no other means to get there, Lily saddled up her horse Patches and set out on her journey. All by herself.  For 28 days.

Consider that for a moment.  I mean, at 15 I was just starting to go to the mall in the next town with a friend.

During a time when career options for women were limited (to say the least), Lily Casey Smith taught indigent schoolchildren in the most remote corners of the frontier (and frequently clashed with superintendents when her views didn't match the expected formula), worked in a factory and as a maid, ran a post-Prohibition bootleg operation (keeping cases of hooch underneath her infant son's crib), drove a car and flew a plane, built a dam, and worked alongside her steadfast and loyal husband Jim in every way to keep their ranch operational. 

In an interview with USA Today, author Jeannette Walls said of her grandmother, "She's an American original who lived an extraordinary life, a tough broad who did what she had to do. She wanted to bend everything to her will. The West. Her students. Her horses. I hope people will say she reminds them of someone."

Jeannette Walls' words made me feel like Lily was a member of my own family, that I grew up hearing these stories, and living alongside them on the thousands of acres of land that Walls describes so vividly you can almost taste the dirt. She includes photos of Lily and other family members throughout the book.

So no, this isn't The Glass Castle.  It's Half Broke Horses, and it's an extraordinary story of a remarkable woman that, true to Lily's spirit, more than holds its own as a story in its own right.

What Other Bloggers Thought
A Novel Menagerie
Age 30+ ... A Lifetime of Books (audiobook review)
Bibliophile by the Sea
Bookworm's Dinner
Care's Online Book Club
Literate Housewife

(Did I miss your review? Let me know in the comments.)

More on Half Broke Horses
USA Today interview with Jeannette Walls

copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.


Robin said...

Yay! I love when other people love the books I love.

The word that kept coming to my mind was spunk. That lady had spunk, and I loved every bit of her story.

I particularly loved how some of the lines felt well-worn, as if Jeannette had heard this particular bit a million times over. You can hear the voice of the grandmother and the granddaughter overlap... in some ways I am so jealous of Jeannette Walls and her rich family tapestry, difficult as it may have been.

Trisha said...

I, gasp, haven't read The Glass Castle yet for some unknown reason, but both of these books sound great.

Creations by Laurel-Rain Snow said...

Oh, I loved The Glass Castle, but this one sounds just as intriguing in its own way, which is truly what I want from an author I admire. Not the same story, retold, but new views of life from a very real perspective.


christa @ mental foodie said...

I had no desire to pick up this book, even though I loved The Glass Castle. however, after reading many good reviews, I thought I'd give it a go to see if Walls is really that good of a writer - could she change my mind on a topic I have no interest in? Let's just say she did :) Here's my review: