Monday, May 3, 2010


I was delighted when I learned that Jeannette Walls had written another book. My fellow book club members and I really enjoyed her memoir, "The Glass Castle." I had been waiting to obtain "Half Broke Horses" for a long time. When I put my name on the reserve list at the library, there were 28 readers ahead of me. I can understand now why it is in such demand, and it was definitely worth the wait. (It can be compared to waiting for hours and hours for the Thanksgiving dinner to cook and then polishing it off in 15 minutes, because I couldn't put "Half Broke Horses" down and finished it in a couple of hours).

This time, Walls tells the story of her maternal grandmother, who was born in 1901 and grew up on ranches in West Texas and Arizona in a still quite Wild West. "Half Broke Horses" reads like it is Lily Casey Smith's autobiography, not biography. It's true that Walls had many family stories to relate about her crackerjack of a grandmother, but it's more than that. It's as if Walls is channeling Lily.

Grandma Lily grew up to be quite a character. Her first home was in a dugout, but her mother tried to raise the children genteely, and she furnished the dugout "with some real finery". At age 10, Lily saved her younger brother and sister from a flash flood by getting them up a tree and keeping them awake and clinging to safety the entire night. She and her family later survived a tornado that destroyed their second home, a real house.

As a child Lily broke wild horses for her dad. At 15 she had no qualms about riding her pony 500 miles alone to her first teaching job. She conquered the big city of Chicago and overcame a first marriage to a bigamist. She and her second husband later ran a vast ranch in Arizona. On several occasions she didn't hesitate to use her "pearl-handled revolver" to defend herself and her children. She bravely stood up to polyglamous Mormon elders who didn't like the way she taught freedom of choice to their little girls.

A horse lover from the get-go, Lily decided to conquer the automobile and fell in love with cars. In fact, she loved them better than horses: "Cars didn't need to be fed if they weren't working, and they didn't leave big piles of manure all over the place. Cars were faster than horses, and they didn't run off or kick down fences. They didn't buck, bite, or rear, and they didn't need to be broke or trained, or caught and saddled up every time you need to go somewhere. They didn't have a mind of their own. Cars obeyed you."

The next thing for Lily to conquer was the airplane. When she approached a pilot advertising $5.00 flying lessons he said he'd never taught a woman before and asked her husband "Think the little lady's up to it?" She replied, "Don't you 'little lady' me, I said. 'I break horses. I brand steers. I run a ranch with a couple dozen cowboys on it, and I can beat them all at poker. I'll be damned if some nincompoop is going to stand there and tell me I don't have what it takes to fly that dinky heap of tin.'"

Walls was often told that she was very much like her grandmother, who died when Walls was 8. But although they were kindred spirits, in a sense, Walls never heistates to show Lily's dark side too. As fearless as she was, as enterprising, as determined to get her college degree, as devoted to her students, Lily was, like all of us, a flawed individual. After having a "crumb bum" for a first husband, Lily coldly chose her second husband not for love but for practical qualities. In my opinion, she showed way too much "tough love" to her two children. And she didn't think twice about becoming a bootlegger if it brought in extra money for her family.

Hard-headed, determined and opinionated, Lily always did what she thought had to be done, whether that meant standing up to the school district, paddling her children, or whaling on the sheriff's boy who needed to be taught a lesson.

One of Lily's children was Rosemary, a girl with a mile-wide "wild streak". At the end of "Half Broke Horses" Rosemary meets Rex Walls, a flyboy, a hellion, a fellow with a matching wild streak. Although Lily sees him as a con man with grand schemes who's always acting on whims, Rosemary falls for him hard and they marry. Even while dating Rosemary, Rex does one of his "skedaddles" (sneaking out of town ahead of the law), these skedaddles later becoming a famous, repeating theme in Walls' excellent memoir of growing up with Rex and Rosemary (now called Rose Mary), two half-broke horses trying to raise their own brood.

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