Review

Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel

by Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls, like her contemporaries Mary Gordon and Mary
Karr, has lived a life of unfathomable pain and tragedy, yet has
managed to use the hurt as inspiration for great literary works.
THE GLASS CASTLE --- her memoir of growing up in a most
unconventional family --- was transcendent in style, wit and
unimaginable honesty, and dealt with things that would horrify most
people, like passing a homeless woman on the streets of Manhattan
and realizing that that is your mother. I don't know how you top
that kind of revelation.

The reality is that you don’t. Walls as a writer threw her
personal lot into that book, but now she turns instead to the
stories --- real and imagined --- of her grandmother, Lily Casey
Smith. Through the prism of Walls’s imagination, she tells
the story of Grandma Lily’s rough-and-tumble life on the
prairie. With expected and forgivable comparisons to Laura Ingalls
Wilder, Walls makes HALF BROKE HORSES an easy-to-read literary
adventure. Imposing a gonzo hindsight to the process, she takes
stories she says she remembers her grandmother telling about her
life (Walls was eight years old when Lily died) and either
reinterprets them or adds on to them, making for some very high
drama in a number of places and some engagingly relatable
“un-drama” in others. She puts herself as the
writer feet first into Lily's mind, soul and
body, and does the writing from there --- hence, the "fiction"
part of the book.

Like most good New Journalism adherents, Walls offers this
account in first person, completely putting her
readers in Lily’s position and telling the stories of
HALF BROKE HORSES in a conversational tone that makes you feel like
you're sitting on a porch somewhere with a cool drink and an even
cooler companion. The stories during the Depression --- when Lily
gave birth to her children and times everywhere were beyond tough
--- make expected and indelible marks on the reader, perhaps
creating the most impact in all the book’s
different eras.

However, the first Christmas lights on the ranch, the one-room
schoolhouse in which Lily taught, and her visceral response to
hearing the news about Hiroshima click with the reader in a way
that makes you feel as if you are living through these times
yourself. Walls is so good at depicting clear human emotion in the
most exacting and economical terms. She's a ridiculously talented
writer and uses this half-truth/half-fiction conglomeration to
thrilling and ecstatic literary effect.

In the sequence when Lily and soon-to-be-husband Jim first
realize that they are going to get married, Lily has two requests:
“The first is that we've got to be partners. Whatever we do,
we’ll be in together, each sharing the load…and the
second is, I know you were raised a Mormon, but I don’t want
you taking any more wives.” Jim responds, “Lily Casey,
from what I know of you, you’re just about as much woman as
any man can handle.” Truer words were never spoken. Long live
Lily and this literary feast of prevailing against all stormy
conditions: weather, prejudice, wartime, loss of trust, love and
death.

HALF BROKE HORSES is that rare thing --- an inspired look
back that raises a real-life heroine back from the dead with
style, wit and determination, and makes a spot for her in American
history. A real ripping yarn!

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on January 22, 2011

Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel
by Jeannette Walls

  • Publication Date: October 6, 2009
  • Genres: Autobiography, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 1416586288
  • ISBN-13: 9781416586289