HALF BROKE HORSES by Jeannette Walls

Book Quote:

“I had become known as Lily Casey, the mustang-breaking, poker-playing, horse-race-winning schoolmarm of Coconino 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.”

Book Review:

Review by Jill Shtulman (SEP 18, 2010)

Jeannette Walls is a natural-born storyteller. In her memoir The Glass Castle, she described in fascinating detail what it meant to be the daughter of Rose Mary and Rex, perhaps two of the most dysfunctional individuals on the planet, brainy underachievers who raised their bevy of children in a most unconventional way.

By the end of that book, Jeannette was on her way to graduating from Barnard College and becoming a celebrated journalist in New York City. I exited the book wanting to know more and in ways, Half Broke Horses goes back to the well, helping readers understand the forces that shaped her mother Rose Mary.

Half Broke Horses precedes The Glass Castle by channeling the voice of Jeannette’s gritty West Texan grandmother, Lily Casey Smith. A rebellious and headstrong little girl, she is in charge of breaking in her father’s horses at age six and by age 12, she is running the ranch and helping to geld the horses. By the time she is a mid-teen, she takes off to the Arizona frontier atop one of the horses – Patches – to teach children not much younger than she is. All the while, she adheres to her mantra, “You had to be willing to work hard and persevere in the face of misfortune. A lot of people, even those born with brains and beauty, didn’t have what it took to knuckle down and get the thing done.”

Knuckle down she does. Within the course of this true-life novel, Lily Casey Smith takes on many roles: she is a totally unorthodox teacher who gets fired from position after position; she marries and dumps a crumb-bum polygamist, she learns to fly an airplane, sells bootleg liquor from her back door, runs a 100,000-acre ranch with her second husband — the indomitable lapsed Mormon Cowboy Jim Smith, survives tornadoes, floods, and the Great Depression, and gives birth to two incorrigible children, Jeannette’s mother Rose Mary and Little Jim.

And herein lies the main problem with Half Broke Horses. The book has a campfire feel; it’s almost as if the reader is sitting at the author’s feet as she narrates one amazing adventure after another, upping the ante each time. But nowhere does the reader get the sense of the inner life of Lily Casey Smith, a rebel-before-her-time, a tough American original in the old frontier. After the birth of Rosemary and Jim, the prose becomes less imaginative, without the sparkle of The Glass Castle. Lily Casey Smith becomes bigger than life, a woman to be admired but not really known, whose life may or may not be filled with half-truths. The emotional distance the author takes from the narrative tends to distance us from ever really knowing Lily Casey Smith and Jim Smith.

It’s a hard task that Jeannette Walls took on herself – writing about her legendary grandmother. And I’m sure this was a task she took on with love and imagination. It was a New York Times Top 10 Best Book in 2009 and certainly has – and will continue – to have appeal for many readers.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 730 readers
PUBLISHER: Scribner; Reprint edition (September 7, 2010)
REVIEWER: Jill I. Shtulman
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Jeannette Walls
EXTRAS: Reading Guide
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of another novel based on real people:




September 18, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Facing History, Family Matters, US Southwest, Wild West

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