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Half Broke Horses

The author of ‘The Glass Castle’ spins a “true life novel’ around the life of her irrepressible grandmother.

October 13, 2009



Growing up with a mother who was ill-suited for farm work and a father whose speech impediment made conversation and business transactions difficult, Lily Casey Smith became one tough nut. At age 5, she had already learned to train horses, riding bareback till the horse accepted a saddle and bit.

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If one threw her, her dad advised, “Most important thing in life is learning how to fall.” Later in life, while working as a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, her job abruptly ended. She took off for Chicago.

Through natural disasters, the Great Depression, and family tragedy, not only did she learn how to fall, Lily Smith seemed particularly adept at getting back into life’s saddle. Fortunately for readers, granddaughter Jeannette Walls grew up listening to her stories.

“The Glass Castle,” Walls’s unforgettable memoir of a family teetering on the brink of homelessness and poverty, one step away from the law, told the story of Lily Smith’s daughter – Walls’s mother, Rose Mary. In Half Broke Horses, Walls’s original intent had been to write about Rose Mary once again, chronicling her childhood on a cattle ranch in New Mexico.

Instead, what ended up captivating her this time around was her maternal grandmother, Lily.

Because Lily died when Walls was 8, many of the recollections are secondhand. Calling this book a “true life novel” enables the writer to embellish without fear of fact-checkers and to rely on her imagination for storytelling. It also means the story can be told in Lily Smith’s remarkable, matter-of-fact voice.

“Half Broke Horses” offers at least a hint of the troubled existence that Lily’s daughter will lead. When Rose Mary is born, the midwife looks at her and then lays out cards to tell her future. “She will have a long life, and it will be eventful,” the midwife pronounces. Lily asks, “Will she be happy?”

“Granny Combs chewed her tobacco and studied the cards, ‘I see a wanderer.’ ”

The bright light that “Half Broke Horses” shines on Lily Smith also illuminates Walls’s childhood. But the world created by this novel is very different from the chaotic one described in “The Glass Castle.”

Unlike Walls’s own dysfunctional family, her grandmother and hardworking grandfather, through sheer endurance and hard work, created a life of self-sufficiency at a time when commitment was crucial to survival.

This new book may surprise fans of “The Glass Castle.” Walls’s parents carried out their nomadic escapades skirting the law, which made for colorful narration.
“Half Broke Horses” reads instead like a lively oral history, filled with personal recollections and storytelling. The history is both dramatic and straightforward. The woman telling this story is even more so.

Augusta Scattergood is a freelance writer in Madison, N.J.

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