Half Broke Horses: A True Life Novel by Jeannette Walls. Scribner 2009.
I was attracted to this book by the title. I wasn’t too surprised, however, to find that the story has little to do with horses. Half Broke Horses tells the story of Walls’ grandmother, Lily Casey Smith. The first chapter introduces Lily as an 10-year-old as she and her sister Helen and brother Buster are bringing in the cows at milking time. The cows, stiff-legged and listening, know something is amiss. Lily puts her ear to the ground and understands: a flash flood is about to hit! She grabs her younger siblings and bolts for a cottonwood, where the three children are able to shimmy up to safety and spend the night until the flood waters recede.
From this dramatic opening, the story moves along quickly. Lily grows up in Salt Draw, west Texas, with two dreamy parents, neither of whom seems to have a strong grip on reality. Her father raises peacocks for the non-existent “carriage trade” and trains and sells a team of horses each year. Her mother prefers not to expose herself to the harsh Texas sun, and remains indoors as much as possible. Lily herself is a capable realist. After a few less-than-stellar years at a Catholic boarding school, Lily enters the working world as a teacher. To take up her first position, she rides her favorite horse, Patches, alone across 500 miles of sparsely populated country. She enjoys teaching, but because she hasn’t finished her own schooling, is eventually replaced. She winds up travelling to Chicago with another young woman, where she works as a maid and makes a disastrous marriage. When the marriage ends, she returns to her family, but soon returns to her interrupted teaching career.
While teaching in a small town she meets Big Jim, some 20 years her senior. The older man is smitten by her spunk and when he proposes, they are married. Two children, Rosemary (the author’s mother) and Little Jim soon arrive. With the depression years now upon them, Jim loses his garage but they are saved from disaster by an offer that Jim receives to manage a large ranch in Arizona. The title is drawn from the ranch horses, which are caught on the range and hastily started under saddle by the ranch hands. The horses are never fully trained, but remain half-broke.
There is more, lots more to Lily’s eventful life. Although the story is written in the first person, Walls never really achieves the voice of her grandmother. It remains a third person account and you are left to wonder about Lily’s deeper feelings and motivations. Walls does not try to reinvent Lily’s relationship with her much-older husband. Lily’s fascination with airplanes and her experiences as a pilot are hinted at but not explored. And you have to wonder why ever did Lily think she would be happy living in Phoenix after she leaves the ranch? In fact, from the very beginning of the story, the motivation of characters is sometimes a mystery. Why weren’t Lily’s parents out looking for their lost children? Lily offers no explanation.
Still, Lily’s life was so full and eventful that there is plenty to enjoy in this lively account. Walls does a nice job of recreating the West of the first half of the twentieth century. I found a description of the life of the Havasupai people, living in the Grand Canyon particularly interesting. The Glass Castle: A Memoir, Walls’ earlier book, tells about Lily’s daughter (Walls’ mother). Half Broke Horses must explain a lot about how Rosemary became the person she was. I haven’t read The Glass Castle yet, but plan on looking it up.
The photograph on the cover of the book was a great choice. It seems to show Lily and her brother and sister in their early years. Even though it is easy to see Lily in this photograph, it is actually a work by Dorothea Lange. Pictured are the Arnold children, outside their farmhouse in western Washington in August of 1939.
You could say that Half Broke Horses gallops along like a half-broke horse itself, and is an entertaining and affecting read.