Friday, December 31, 2010

Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls

Subtitled A True-Life Novel, Half Broke Horses is the story of Jeannette Walls's grandmother, constructed from family stories and historical research and presented in the first person, memoir-style. Since Walls also wrote an actual memoir, The Glass Castle, the "true-life novel" designation creates some confusion in the reader about the extent to which this work is historical and/or a product of the author's imagination.

All of that notwithstanding, Half Broke Horses does present an interesting life story. Walls starts Lily Casey Smith's story with a flash flood that strikes when Lily and her sister and brother are in the pasture. Forced into a tree by the flood, the three children must stay awake all night, clinging to the branches; if they fall asleep, they will fall into the water below and drown. When they survive and return home, their mother claims that her prayers and a guardian angel have saved them. But Lily knows that "I was the one who'd saved us all, not Mom and not some guardian angel."

The grittiness and practicality reflected in that sentence serve Lily well as she works on her dad's Texas ranch, becomes a teacher at 15 (with less than a year of formal schooling behind her), and then moves to Chicago to make a new life. After marrying a "crumb-bum" bigamist, Lily decides to leave Chicago behind and returns to teaching in Red Lake, Arizona. Her sister, Helen, who had moved to Hollywood to become an actress but ended up pregnant and unmarried, soon joins her. When the school authorities say Helen must leave or Lily will be fired, Helen commits suicide, sending Lily into a period of deep grief. She emerges committed to having her own children. As her partner in this endeavor (and husband), she chooses her friend "Big Jim" Smith, a hard-working fallen-away Mormon some years her senior.

Up to this point, I was admiring Lily's spunk and drive, which are still in evidence as she and her husband work to scratch out a living in the Depression. But having read The Glass Castle, I started to feel less admiration as her inflexibility and occasional bursts of violent anger directed at children, including her daughter Rosemary (the author's mother), began to show themselves. Certainly, Lily cannot be held totally responsible for the horrific parenting that Walls and her siblings received--yet the roots of some of Rosemary's problems as an adult do show themselves in Lily's story. By the end of the book, I found no-nonsense flintiness to be an overrated quality.

Favorite passage:

That spring Rex and Rosemary decided to get married. She gave me the news one evening after dinner while we were doing the dishes.

"You need someone solid," I told her. "Haven't I taught you anything?"

"You sure have," she said. "That's all you've been doing my whole life. 'Let this be a lesson.' 'Let that be a lesson.' But all these years, what you thought you were teaching me was one thing, and what I was learning was something else."

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