Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel. Jeannette Walls. Scribner. 270 pages. $25.
Most children resist learning their parents’ lessons, making adulthood at time to ascertain where it all went wrong—or right. Jeannette Walls first mined personal history for answers in her bestselling debut memoir “The Glass Castle,” and continues to excavate her unusual family mores in her new true-life novel “Half Broke Horses.”
This humorous categorization could be seen as a dig at authors who fictionalize aspects of memoirs yet still call them nonfiction, but is overall a smart disclosure that Walls has filled in gaps and invented dialogue throughout this homage to her spunky maternal grandmother Lily Casey. Lily’s distinct, first person narrative voice brings immediacy to Walls’ inclusion of seemingly every moment and memory from 1901, Lily’s birth year, to the year Walls was born, which also positions the novel as a prequel to “The Glass Castle.”
Lily’s early life takes place on a ranch in Salt Draw, Texas, where her father trained carriage horses but couldn’t ride them, having been kicked in the head by one at age three. His lovable idiosyncrasies, like perpetually campaigning for phonetic spelling, energize these parts, while Lily’s mother, who thought work better left to men and with whom Lily doesn’t identify, fades like a wallflower. Lily compensates for her father’s physical handicap, working so hard on the ranch that a brief boarding school stint feels like a vacation, and keeps her eyes on the future. One of the first lessons she learns from her father is that “no matter how much he hated or feared the future, it was coming and there was only one way to deal with it: by climbing aboard.”
Such practical ambition is arguably Lily’s defining characteristic, and Walls sketches her only in positive light, emphasizing Lily’s resourcefulness, work ethic, and independence. She’s presented as rough around the edges and proud of it, a free-spirited model of self-sufficiency and women’s liberation who is at the same time dedicated to finishing her college degree, and buckles down during hard times to support both her dreams and her family. She anchors a sprawling story that unfolds along the undulating backbone of early American life, through two wars, prohibition, suffrage, the Great Depression, the rise of the automobile, the airplane—complete with canvas cockpits—and city life.
Walls avoids the interior lives of the men in Lily’s life, her husband a supporting cast member and her son a mere extra. The novel is really about women—from Lily’s tragic sister Helen, who dreamed of becoming an actress, to Walls’ mother Rosemary, a firecracker Lily lovingly describes as “a little like a half-broke horse.” The portrait Walls seems most charmed by is that of tough, headstrong women who make their own luck with whatever they possess, learning from mistakes along the way.
Throughout life Lily sees every event as a lesson, and works hard to impart that perspective to Rosemary. “I tried to make her see that everything in life…was a lesson, but it was up to her to figure out what she’d learned,” Lily says; but in this case, Walls is the one figuring them out, just as we are each left to make sense of how those who came before shape who we are now.
–Reviewed by CHRISTINE THOMAS
Originally published in the Miami Herald, 11.3.09