This is a prequel of sorts to Walls' memoir, The Glass Castle. Half Broke Horses is the story of Walls' grandmother, Lily Casey Smith (1901-1967), who in Glass Castle is perhaps the only source of stability in young Jeannette's life.
In an author's note at the end of the book, Walls reveals that she'd originally intended to write about her [eccentric] mother's childhood, but her mother convinced her to write about Lily instead. Walls resisted, as her grandmother died when she was eight and "most of what I knew about her came secondhand" (page 271). She could confirm much of what her mother and others told her (including in books about two ancestors), Walls says she wrote the book "in the first person because I wanted to capture Lily's distinctive voice, which I clearly recall" (page 272). However, in a Publishers Weekly interview, Walls said,
she didn't feel honest calling the book nonfiction. "Once you start assuming or plugging up holes, jumping to conclusions, it's no longer pure. Once it's no longer completely nonfiction, then it becomes fiction.” So Half Broke Horses' subtitle is A True-Life Novel. Walls' hope for the book is that it inspires readers to examine their own family histories.The rollicking tale begins with Lily saving her two younger siblings from a flash flood on the Salt Draw near Toyah, Texas, where Lily was born in a dugout in 1901. Lily lives an exciting life in some of the most remote parts of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona - but also in the big city of Chicago in the Roaring 20s. She helps her father train horses, teaches in remote schools, works as a maid and marries a bigamist, sells moonshine during Prohibition, learns to fly a plane, and manages a huge ranch with her Mormon-raised second husband, Jim Smith
Lily's life is fascinating, and the descriptions of the places she lives in and goes to are detailed. Along the way, daughter Rosemary is born and grows up (the book ends with Rosemary's marriage to Rex Walls and the birth of Jeannette in 1960), and the reader gets some clues as to why Rosemary turns out the way she does in The Glass Castle.
Walls reads her own book for the audio version. While she's not a polished narrator, I found her quite believable voicing her own grandmother. While a Dorothea Lange Depression-era photograph is used on the cover of both the hardbound and audio versions (after various iterations), the hardbound has actual photographs of Lily and her family inside. While I love Lange's work, I don't think this particular photo fits the story - I would have rather seen some sort of collage of all the real photos of Lily and family.
© Amanda Pape - 2011
[The audiobook and a print copy were borrowed from and returned to my university library and my local public county library respectively.]