Book Review: Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls

Half Broke Horses - Jeannette Walls (Scribner, 2009)
Half Broke Horses – Jeannette Walls (Scribner, 2009)

The Glass Castle exploded onto the scene of the book world – Jeannette Walls’ hugely popular memoir of her unconventional childhood. Many cite Walls as the first in a growing trend of memoirs from “average” people (ie: not celebrities). A huge part of Walls’ memoir (and its appeal) were her parents, especially her mother, Rosemary.

So its no wonder that it’s also appealing to read about Rosemary’s life from the other side. The woman who raised her.

Half Broke Horses is a fictional memoir of Walls’ maternal grandmother, Lily Casey Smith. While based on the true life events of Smith’s life, Walls writes in the Afterword that calling the book a novel was the most honest thing to do because she did have to embellish certain details and fill in gaps.

The story is told in first person, from Lily’s perspective, beginning with her childhood living, literally, in a sort of hole in the ground. Lily is tough and resourceful and used to hard-living. With a delicate mother and a father with a limp and a speech impediment, as the oldest child she is responsible for much around their home and farm and is breaking horses from a young age and getting things done. Early on, she heads out on her own and becomes a teacher, despite never having finished eighth grade. She learns to drive a car and, eventually, pilot an airplane.

Lily is an intriguing character and Walls does a decent job at capturing her voice, though some of it feels overly folksy – every time Lily refers to her first husband, for example, she calls him her “crumb bum first husband”. A few repetitions like that seemed to be Walls trying a little too hard to portray that voice.

I liked Lily a lot more before she became a mother. Once her oldest child, Rosemary (Walls’ mother) is born, the book shifts to portray Lily’s focus on Rosemary. And while this makes sense since Rosemary is who Walls’ previous readers are interested in, it doesn’t ring true if this is indeed supposed to be from Lily’s perspective. Her second child, Jim, seems to be mostly forgotten. Lily as a mother becomes increasingly unlikeable as Rosemary gets older and Lily tries harder and harder to dictate and control her life. It’s painful to think ahead to Rosemary’s life and to see Lily continue to simply not understand why things haven’t worked out the way she planned.

Walls is an engaging writer and the book is an easy read. I can’t help wonder if she has any other relatives who she could write books about.

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