After reading Wall’s memoir, The Glass Castle, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Half Broke Horses, the prequel to The Glass Castle. Half Broke Horses is written about Wall’s Grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, who was born in a dugout in 1901. (I read somewhere on the internet that if you were a fan of the “Little House” books, you might understand what a dugout actually is. I was never a big fan of prairie tales and covered wagons so I’ll take the New York Times’ word on that). But I AM a big fan of Jeannette Walls, whose storytelling really takes me to where she is; and whose family history is interesting enough that she doesn’t need to look far for inspiration.
But back to the book…Lily Casey Smith grew up poor with her family on several ranches where she learned to break and train horses and well, run a ranch, among other things (her parents had their shortcomings in terms of responsibility). Her childhood was filled with tales of flash floods, tornadoes, wild animals and other adventures. At 15, Lily got a job as a teacher and rode her horse alone for several weeks to get to Arizona. WEEKS! Who rides a horse for several WEEKS? Clearly, that astonished me. Her classroom was a single room and she taught children of all ages with no curriculum or training. She just made it all up. Of all the crazy things in her life, it’s actually kind of funny that I’m perplexed by THIS.
After many starts and stops getting out on her own, Lily eventually makes it to Chicago, where she meets her first “crum-bum” husband. Chicago eventually brings heartbreak after heartbreak and Lily leaves for more adventures…like racing horses and playing poker. Not only is this time in her life a new phase for her, but things are changing in America as well. Horses are beginning to be replaced by cars, and prohibition moves across America. Lily meets her second husband and they run a garage and supplement their salary by selling hooch on the side. Who said baby carriages are just for holding children?
Lily’s life comes full circle as she and Jim eventually end up running a ranch, where they raise their children. Of course one of whom is Rose, Wall’s mother. Having read The Glass Castle, it’s interesting to see how Rose and her husband Rex started their life together as idealistic, spontaneous, and free-spirited dreamers – these same things that turned toxic to the Walls family later in life. It’s also enlightening to understand what events helped form the personalities and values of both Lily and Rose.
Just a quick disclaimer, and Walls makes this herself, Half Broke Horses is not a memoir or biography. This is because Walls’ grandmother is not alive and so Walls doesn’t have first hand information about her grandmother’s life. Walls writes the book in Lily’s voice, or how Walls images it would be, and she fills in areas of Lily’s life where there may be holes or a lack of information.
Fact or fiction, this is a great book for many reasons. It’s a multi-generational story (I’m a sucker for those) that spans a period of several decades and covers an exciting time in America’s history. So while Lily’s life is revealed, we also get glimpses of the wild west, World War I, Prohibition, and the Great Depression.
Definitely a recommend!