Lilliputian Review: Half Broke Horses

From the Publisher: "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 ("I loved cars even more than I loved horses. They didn't need to be fed if they weren't working, and they didn't leave big piles of manure all over the place") and fly a plane. And, with her husband Jim, she ran a vast ranch in Arizona. She raised two children, one of whom 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.

My Take: I didn't want to start off this review by saying, it was no The Glass Castle, but there you go. I said it. It's done.

The Glass Castle was one of the books that convinced me that New York Times bestsellers aren't complete garbage. I read it on a whim, thinking I need some fluff to tide me over, and BAM!, I was won over by Walls' courage in sharing the story of her bizarre, totally dysfunctional and impoverished upbringing.

Half Broke Horses is the story of Walls' maternal grandmother. Lily Casey Smith defined the term "tough old broad" and her ability to turn her life around, despite incredible odds - tragedy in her family, a bad marriage, poverty - is inspiring. Half Broke Horses is ultimately a tale of early feminism.

While Lily's methods are often suspect, in the end one can only wonder if the ends didn't justify the means. Many of Lily's family and friends didn't survive the hardbitten journey she endured. That she makes it through is a triumph. Yet that her daughter, Rosemary, Walls' mother, goes on to live such a troubled life leaves room for doubt. Lily took no prisoners when making her choices, yet one must wonder if her daughter ultimately paid the price.

As you can see, Half Broke Horses is interesting in that it further fleshes out The Glass Castle but it doesn't make for much of a memoir. Walls' calls the book 'a true-life novel'. She culled from memory, research and from her mother's stories but ultimately had too many gaps and had to invent the rest.

It shows.

The book is written in brief vignettes that give some insight but ultimately don't tie together well or dig deep enough. Walls' should have gone for broke - really filled in those gaps of knowledge instead of just stuffing paper into the cracks.

I wouldn't recommend this as a stand-alone but for fans of The Glass Castle, it's a needed tying of loose ends.



Half Broke Horses/ Jeannette Walls / Simon and Schuster / HC, 2009

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5 comments:

JK said...

I was also surprised to be blown away by The Glass Castle, and was looking forward to this one, but I think your criticism is probably bang on. Ah well.

B.Kienapple said...

The bits at the end about ol' Rex Walls is fascinating and sort of makes the book. Made it worth it for me. But as a story about Lily..nope.

Diane said...

I loved Glass Castle, and although the writing style is different in Half Broke Horses, I still loved the book. Sorry you were disappointed.

klandoni said...

My heart must be made of stone, because I seriously did not enjoy The Glass Castle at all. I found it exploitative and extremely self-serving. Yes, Walls overcame a lot of obstacles and blah blah blah, but so did her siblings who were relegated to unfavourable, supporting roles. She just kind of made herself the guest of honour at her own pity party. Blech.

...I'll admit, though, that receiving the book as a gift from my significant other's mother weirded me out and added a layer of discomfort that didn't help my reading experience.

B.Kienapple said...

I can definitely see how The Glass Castle can be a bit much - the story, even if true, is painted in heavy strokes. However, Walls hid the story of her youth for many years and only in this memoir did she come forward with the truth. I felt that she portrayed her family with love even as she was blisteringly honesty. I loved her brutal honesty! It made me forgive her for any sins of heavy-handedness.

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