Review: Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Walls
Lily was a spirited woman, a passionate teacher and talker who explained in great detail what had happened to her, why it had happened to her, what she'd done about it, and what she's learned from it, all with the idea of imparting life lessons to my mother.
Jeannette Walls placed this statement about her grandmother in the Author's Note at the end of her fabulous novel, Half Broke Horses. On the cover above the title in all capitals are the words A TRUE LIFE NOVEL.
Walls' "true life novel" presents the events in the life of Lily Casey Smith, a colorful and fascinating person spicing the pages of this book. This retelling of stories from her family's oral history were handed down through the years, and Walls admits that she does take a few storyteller's liberties.
Growing up in west Texas where horses and buckboards were the only mode of transportation, Lily learned to live tough, face obstacles and come out swinging regardless of what she faced. Her father spouted philosophy like a flash flood of insight that went straight into the fiber that made Lily Casey one of the strongest, most durable individuals in Texas.
“Most important thing in life.” he would say, "is learning how to fall.”
“If I owned hell and west Texas,” he said, “I do believe I'd sell west Texas and live in hell.”
“When God closes a window, he opens a door. But it's up to you to find it.”
Lily's mother, though, stood in stark contrast to her father. Pious to a fault, she was a woman certain that everything that happened came straight from the hand of God.
If you want to be reminded of the love of the Lord, Mom always said, just watch the sunrise. And if you wanted to be reminded of the wrath of the Lord, Dad said, watch a tornado.
Half Broke Horses takes the reader on a sweeping, panoramic ride.
The novel spans the time from before the War to End All Wars, into the Roaring Twenties, Prohibition, the Depression Era, WWII and into the fifties when Lily's daughter met and married the cavalier and exciting man who would become Jeannette Walls' father.
Filled with passion and spirit, trepidation never halted or slowed Lily Casey. She left her family's farm for Chicago where opportunities existed for women, met and married a man who had another secret wife and family, left him, married a man who himself had a colorful history. Her lifelong love and partner was a Jack Mormon whose father had broke with U.S. law to live in a polygamous colony in Mexico.
Lily was a determined woman with vision and plans.
Before her marriage, she found her way into teaching during WWII. She never gave up her desire to teach and earned an education despite obstacles that would make most stop and turn back. Lily's father had instilled in her a philosophical attitude that did not include weakness or giving up.
Dad was a philosopher and had what he called his Theory of Purpose, which held that everything in life had a purpose, and unless it achieved that purpose, it was just taking up space on the planet and wasting everybody's time.
For Lily, just taking up space was not an option. Her talent and her skills were perfect for teaching, yet getting a job with only an eighth grade education wasn't easy. Her father had taught her beyond the level of most high school graduates of the era.
The reality, as her dad put it, was that it's not enough to have a fine education. You need a piece of paper to prove it. With Lily he shared his love of learning and of teaching.
Teaching is a calling, too. And I've always thought that teachers in their way are holy – angels leading their flocks.
When an opportunity arose to teach in a Mormon settlement, far into the dry land of Texas where men had many wives and large numbers of children, Lily took the job that others shunned. She travelled alone on her beloved horse, Patches, along trails and on a ray of hope she was moving in the right direction until she arrived at a town unlike anything she had imagined. That her father was the son of a well-known Mormon, helped her status. The trip bolstered her determination to succeed.
But there were still long stretches of solitude, only me and Patches ambling along, and as I sat by my little fire at night, the coyotes howled just like they always had, and the huge moon turned the desert silver.
A sixteen year old girl with more fortitude than any of the old time settlers found her way to her dream, regardless of how shadowy the path.
Lily, a woman who would not be broken, imparts life lessons throughout the book. The story stands on its own. The lessons in life give it a glory that often made me smile, nod in agreement and often laugh aloud. Cynically, Lily's father's wryly commented on how much he trusted historians.
“History gets written by the winners,”he said, “and when the crooks win, you get crooked history.”
I recommend reading The Glass Castle, the story of Lily's daughter Rosemary and her family, before reading Half Broke Horses. I happened to read them in that order. It made for a perfect pairing, a better understanding of the characters. The Silver Star, which is out later this year (I received a review copy that I devoured), continues the themes of Walls' first two books and the three nestle together nicely as a universal story of family and American life.