Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls
Review by Shannon Siebert
You might call this second book by Jeannette Walls a “prequel” to her first book a memoir, The Glass Castle that was the bizarre story of her most unusual upbringing and eccentric parents. Walls calls this book a “true life novel,” that tells the amazing story of her maternal grandmother Lily Casey Smith. It is told in the first person of her grandmother Lily who grew up in the rough and tumble ranch world of New Mexico and Arizona.
As early as six years old she was helping her father break and train carriage horses quickly developing as more of ranch foreman for her unpractical father and ladylike mother. Lily eventually marries and has two children one of whom is Rosemary, Jeannette Wall’s mother. After reading Half Broke Horses, it somewhat explains, for those who have read The Glass Castle, why Rosemary became a very unorthodox parent to say the least.
Lily was born in a dugout in 1901 and learned early from her father “the Theory of Purpose,” while helping run the family business breaking horses at their first ranch called Salt Draw in West Texas. The book opens with a harrowing story of how Lily saved herself and younger brother and sister from a flash flood by scrambling up a cottonwood tree clinging for their lives all night. It was through Lily’s perseverance that she kept them all awake so none of them would perish while they waited for morning when the floodwaters abated enough for them to safely come down. This was just the beginning of Lily finding her “Purpose” in life and in this case her father called her “a guardian angel.”
Their life was hard in West Texas and after a tornado demolished their home they decided to return to her father’s family land in New Mexico to a place they called the KC Ranch. Her parents had promised Lily that when she turned 13 she could go to school to the Sisters of Loretto Academy of Our Lady in Santa Fe. Fortunately for Lily they kept that promise and Lily was able to spend some valuable time at the academy proving to be a top notch student. The only trouble was her schooling was cut short because her father squandered away her tuition money and she had to leave at midterm but it was enough for her to receive the encouragement to know she would make a wonderful teacher someday.
And teach she did. Because of World War I there arose a great need for itinerant replacement teachers and through one of the nuns from the academy in Santa Fe she received word of an opportunity in a remote area in Northern Arizona. Determined 15 year old Lily aced the teacher’s exam and with no money or means of transportation she saddled up her horse Patches and set off alone on horseback making the 500 mile long journey to Red Lake, Arizona. Her life journey continued to show this amazing spunk and fearlessness as she experienced plenty of personal tragedy and drama along the way.
This is just one of many intriguing stories that chronicles Lily’s colorful life as a mustang breaker, maid, teacher, bootlegger, bush pilot, driver, ranch owner, and mother of two children. Lily and her daughter Rosemary were both a little like half broke horses in many ways and Walls captures the indomitable spirit of her resourceful, independent and no nonsense grandmother in this entertaining book.
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