Half Broke Horses
Jeannette Walls, 2009
Simon & Schuster
"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 The Glass Castle.
Lily survived tornadoes, droughts, floods, the Great Depression, and the most heartbreaking personal tragedy. She bristled at prejudice of all kinds — against women, Native Americans, and anyone else who didn't fit the mold. Half Broke Horsesis Laura Ingalls Wilder for adults, as riveting and dramatic as Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa or Beryl Markham's West with the Night. It will transfix readers everywhere. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—April 21, 1960
• Where—Phoenix, Arizona, USA
• Education—B.A., Barnard College
• Currently—lives in New York City and Long Island
For two decades, Jeannette Walls hid her roots. A regular contributor to MSNBC.com, she lives in New York and Long Island and is married to the writer John Taylor. (From the publisher.)
Her own words:
When I sat down to write The Glass Castle, there was no doubt in my mind that once the truth about me was out I would lose all my friends and my job. So far, the reaction has been the opposite. I'm just stunned. I think I've shortchanged people and their capacity for compassion. The whole experience has changed my outlook on the world. My brother and I are closer. My sister Lori and I have discussed things we'd never before talked about. I'm back in touch with people I knew in West Virginia whom I hadn't spoken to since I left. My mother wants to correct something in the book: She wants everyone to know that she's an excellent driver.
When I was growing up, I always loved animals. But it was a part of myself that I'd let go dormant as an adult. Writing The Glass Castle, I was reminded of how important animals had always been to me, and that love was reawakened. Not long ago, I rescued two racing greyhounds, Emma and Leopold, and I'm irrationally devoted to them.
When asked in a 2005 Barnes & Noble interview which book influenced her career as a writer, here is her response:
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith [is the book that influenced me the most].... It had a powerful effect on my view of the world and first made me realize how much of an emotional wallop — and comfort — a book could deliver. I read it when I was 11 or 12 and was stunned that a character created 50 years earlier seemed so similar to me. She loved her father even though he was a hopeless drunk, she lived in a rough neighborhood but found beauty in it, and she was determined to make something of her life.
If [I] had a book club, [we] would it be reading...Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. I find books that have a moral and spiritual center, that speak to what is really important and lasting, hugely appealing.
Books are my very favorite gift to give. If you give a book to someone and they really respond to it, you feel you've actually changed their life in some way. I recently gave my father-in-law both volumes of William Manchester's biography of Churchill — and we had long, animated conversations about him and history and the psychology and greatness. If a book really moves me, I'll sometimes buy several copies for friends and give them out even if there's no occasion. I bought The Lovely Bones for four or five people. If someone's not much of a reader, I try to find a book that speaks to one of their passions. Whenever I'm reading a book I enjoy, I always develop a mental list of the people I want to share it with. I love it when people reciprocate; when they call me up and tell me they're reading a great book and can't wait for me to read it. That's how I heard about Gilead.
I write on a 19th-century oak table, in front of a window overlooking a wisteria-covered arbor.... [W]hen I wrote The Glass Castle, I wrote it entirely on the weekends, getting to my desk by 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. and continuing until 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. I wrote the first draft in about six weeks — but then I spent three or four years rewriting it. My husband, John Taylor, who is also a writer, observed all this approvingly and quoted John Fowles, who said that a book should be like a child: conceived in passion and reared with care.
I've been a journalist for almost 20 years and wrote one nonfiction book about the history of the tabloid press. But writing The Glass Castle was an entirely different experience. I was writing about myself and about intensely personal — and potentially embarrassing — experiences. Over the last 25 years, I wrote several versions of this memoir — sometimes pounding out 220 pages in a single weekend — but I always threw out the pages. Once I tried to fictionalize it, but that didn't work either. It took me this long to figure out how to tell the story. (From a 2005 Barnes & Noble interview.)
[Jennette Walls] has managed to make her second book almost as inviting as her first, even though its upright heroine is never as startling as Ms. Walls's parents were... Ms. Walls's readers...know that when Rex and Rosemary become the parents of a "Little Critter" named Jeannette at the end of Half Broke Horses, a pretty doggone good storyteller is born.
Janet Maslin - New York Times
[Laura Ingalls] Wilder's stories have acquired such mythic power…that it can be easy to forget how many American families shared similar histories, each withtheir own touchstones of calamity, endurance and hard-won reward. With convincing, unprettified narration, Walls weaves her own ancestor into this collective rough-and-tumble heritage.
Liesl Schillinger - New York Times Book Review
For the first 10 years of her life, Lily Casey Smith, the narrator of this "true-life novel" by her granddaughter, Walls, lived in a dirt dugout in west Texas. Walls, whose mega-selling memoir, The Glass Castle, recalled her own upbringing, writes in what she recalls as Lily's plainspoken voice, whose recital provides plenty of drama and suspense as she ricochets from one challenge to another. Having been educated in fits and starts because of her parents' penury, Lily becomes a teacher at age 15 in a remote frontier town she reaches after a solo 28-day ride. Marriage to a bigamist almost saps her spirit, but later she weds a rancher with whom she shares two children and a strain of plucky resilience. (They sell bootleg liquor during Prohibition, hiding the bottles under a baby's crib.) Lily is a spirited heroine, fiercely outspoken against hypocrisy and prejudice, a rodeo rider and fearless breaker of horses, and a ruthless poker player. Assailed by flash floods, tornadoes and droughts, Lily never gets far from hardscrabble drudgery in several states—New Mexico, Arizona, Illinois—but hers is one of those heartwarming stories about indomitable women that will always find an audience
No one familiar with Walls's affecting memoir, The Glass Castle, will be surprised by her subtitle here: Walls is a careful observer who can give true-life stories the rush and immediacy of the best fiction. Here she novelizes the life of her grandmother, giving herself just the latitude she needs to create a great story. Lily Casey Smith is one astonishing woman, tough enough to trot her pony across several hundred miles of desert to her first job when she's only a teenager. After a brief stint in Chicago and marriage to a flim-flam man, she's back in the West, teaching again and eventually remarrying, helping her fine new husband at the gas station, raising her children, and running hooch if she must to make ends meet during the Depression. Her story is at once simple and utterly remarkable, for this is one remarkable woman—a half-broke horse herself who's clearly passed on her best traits to her granddaughter. Verdict: Told in a natural, offhand voice that is utterly enthralling, this is essential reading for anyone who loves good fiction—or any work about the American West. —Barbara Hoffert
After a fascinating memoir about her vagabond parents (The Glass Castle, 2005), Walls turns her sights on her maternal grandmother Lily Casey Smith, who died when Walls was eight. Because she uses a first-person narrative voice to capture Lily's scrappy voice and imaginatively fills in some of the missing details of Lily's life, Walls calls the work "A True-Life Novel," but it follows the straightforward linear pathof biography. Lily's father, whose speech impediment belies his native intelligence, is an eccentric who once spent three years in prison for murder, idolizes Billy the Kid and believes child's play is a waste of time. Lily's childhood on ranches in west Texas and New Mexico is an idyll filled with chores like breaking horses. She wins academic honors at the Catholic boarding school she attends until her father spends her tuition money to buy some dogs. A scrapper, Lily overcomes every setback. Although she has no high-school degree, during World War I's teacher shortage she temporarily lands the teaching jobs she loves. When the jobs evaporate, she moves to Chicago, where she marries a salesman who turns out to be a thieving bigamist, "a crumb bum" as Lily calls him. At 27, she starts college in Arizona where she meets and marries Jim Smith, whose no-nonsense smarts match Lily's. When money gets scarce, Lily, now a teacher and mother of two, supplements the family income by selling bootleg liquor. Jim lands a job managing a 100,000-acre cattle ranch and builds a dam that allows the ranch to survive a terrible drought. When the ranch is sold, the Smiths move to Phoenix, where they live in unaccustomed comfort. But city life does not suit them and they head back to rural Arizona. Lily's relationship with her equally headstrong but less practical daughter Rosemary—who grows up to be Wall's mother—becomes increasingly prickly. To the end Lily is one tough bird. Like her grandmother, Walls knows how to tell a story with love and grit.
1. Jeannette Walls has said that she tried writing this book in the third person but that it didn’t work for her. Do you think you are closer to Lily because you get her story in her own voice? Did you “see” Lily Casey Smith as real? What is your response to the first person voice of the book?
2. When Lily’s father dies, she and Rosemary drive his body from Tucson back to the ranch in West Texas. Rosemary is embarrassed to be seen driving with a corpse and ducks down in the car when they stop at a red light (pg. 198). “Life’s too short, honey,” Lily tells Rosemary, “to worry what other people think of you.” What does Lily’s reaction to this behavior show about her character? Does she give much credence to what other people think of her? What effect do you think her mother’s attitude had on Rosemary?
3. Following Helen’s suicide, Lily says, “When people kill themselves, they think they’re ending the pain, but all they're doing is passing it on to those they leave behind” (pg. 113). Do you agree with this statement?
4. Lily seems willing to sacrifice everything to defend her principles and the rights of others. On more than one occasion, she is fired from a teaching position for refusing to back down from what she believes in. Do you applaud Lily’s moral conviction in these instances? Or did you hope that Lily would learn to compromise?
5. Lily has high expectations for her children, from sending them off to boarding school despite their protests to enforcing strict rules for keeping animals as pets. When Rosemary falls in love with a wild horse and asks her mother if she can keep it, Lily replies, “The last thing we need around here is another half-broke horse” (pg. 190). How might this statement apply to Lily’s children as well? Are Lily’s expectations of her children particularly high or rather a reflection of the times? Why do you think this phrase was chosen as the title of the book?
6. When a group of Brooklyn ladies visits the ranch, Rosemary and Lily take them for a car ride they’ll never forget. Lily concludes their encounter by saying, “You ride, you got to know how to fall, and you drive, you got to know how to crash” (pg. 175). How does this statement apply to Lily’s life as a whole? What does she mean by knowing “how to fall”?
7. Discuss Lily’s husband Jim. How does his personality complement her strong nature?
8. While attempting to prevent the ranch from flooding, Lily tells Rosemary, “Do the best you can...That's all anyone can do.” Her instructions are echoed by Jim's declaration: “We did a good job—good as we could” (pg. 152). Why do you think Lily and Jim have both adopted this philosophy? To which other instances in their lives are they likely to have applied this rationale?
9. Lily comes off as tough and resilient, but there are moments in this book of vast heartbreak, where you see her façadecrack. How does the author handle the death of Lily’s friend in Chicago? Her first husband’s duplicity? Her sister’s suicide? Her suspicions of her husband Jim?
10. Walls calls Half Broke Horses a “true life novel.” In her author’s note, she explains why. Do you agree with this label? What do you think of the “true life” genre?
11. “Helen’s beauty, as far as I was concerned, had been a curse, and I resolved that I would never tell Rosemary she was beautiful” (pg. 119). Examine Lily’s relationship with her daughter, Rosemary, and, in The Glass Castle, Rosemary’s relationship with Jeannette. How does each generation try to compensate for the one before? How does each mother try to avoid the mistakes or pain imposed upon her by her own mother?
If you've also read The Glass Castle...
1. In Half Broke Horses, Lily’s father decides to bring her home from school so that he can use her tuition money to breed dogs. This instance of selfishness bears a close resemblance to Rex Walls’s behavior in The Glass Castlewhen he takes the money Jeannette’s sister has been saving to escape Welch, WV, and goes on a drinking binge. Over and over these men disappoint their children, and yet they are forgiven. Talk about the lack of bitterness in both of these books. How do the children rationalize their parents’ behavior?
2. “There was a big difference between needing things and wanting things—though a lot of people had trouble telling the two apart—and at the ranch, I could see, we’d have pretty much everything we’d need but precious little else” (pg. 134–5). How might this description refer to Lily’s life as a whole? What effect did growing up without much have on Rosemary Walls, whom we learn more about in The Glass Castle?
3. Both The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses open with a climactic event from the main character’s childhood that has left a memorable impression on her. Compare each event and the narrators’ descriptions of the events. How do these retellingsset the stage for what’s to come? Why do you think Walls chose to use them as the openings of both books?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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