“Those old cows knew trouble was coming before we did.” So begins the story of Lily Casey Smith, in Jeannette Walls’s magnificent, true-life novel based on her no-nonsense, resourceful, hard working, 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, all 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, ran a vast ranch in Arizona. She raised two children, one of whom is Jeannette’s memorable mother, Rosemary Smith Walls, unforgettably portrayed in Glass Castle.
From the very first page of Half Broke Horses, I was hooked. Lily Casey’s first person narrative brought me right into the midst of her world: a world that started in West Texas, but would lead her to numerous places, from Arizona to Chicago and back to Arizona, with a few jogs along the way. Through her eyes I saw the gorgeous, yet sometimes brutal Southwest, from a new perspective. I could admire her energy as she trained those “half broke horses” that occasionally came along. And her determination to earn her education in spite of the odds against her.
Some might describe her as stubborn, while others can see that she had the stamina necessary for the life she had chosen. A life thrust upon her by birth and family, but one to which she returned after deciding that “city life” was not for her.
Her persistence in showing her children the life lessons she wanted them to learn had the opposite effect on her daughter Rosemary (the author’s mother). Rosemary preferred living life for the moment, since the future was not something one could count on. I liked this excerpt that shows us the companionship between Lily and her husband Jim, and their philosophy, too, as they watch their daughter after her wedding to Rex Walls:
“Jim put his arm around me and we watched them take off up the street, heading out into open country like a couple of half-broke horses.”
The author describes that she gleaned the facts of the story from those she interviewed, but that she recalls her grandmother’s distinctive voice: a wonderful detail she has brought to the reader as she tells the story. A story that I won’t forget…and to which I offer five stars.