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Jeannette Walls's The Glass Castle was "nothing short of spectacular" (Entertainment Weekly). Now she brings us the story of her grandmother told in a voice so authentic and compelling that the book is destined to become an instant classic.
"Those old cows knew trouble was coming before we did." So begins the story of Lily Casey Smith, in Jeannette Walls's magnificent, true-life novel based on her no-nonsense, resourceful, hard working, and spectacularly compelling grandmother. By age six, Lily was helping her father break horses. At fifteen, she left home to teach in a frontier town riding five hundred miles on her pony, all alone, to get to her job. She learned to drive a car ("I loved cars even more than I loved horses. They didn't need to be fed if they weren't working, and they didn't leave big piles of manure all over the place") and fly a plane, and, with her husband, ran a vast ranch in Arizona. She raised two children, one of whom is Jeannette's memorable mother, Rosemary Smith Walls, unforgettably portrayed in The Glass Castle.
Lily survived tornadoes, droughts, floods, the Great Depression, and the most heartbreaking personal tragedy. She bristled at prejudice of all kinds against women, Native Americans, and anyone else who didn't fit the mold. Half Broke Horses is Laura Ingalls Wilder for adults, as riveting and dramatic as Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa or Beryl Markham's West with the Night. It will transfix readers everywhere.
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Jeannette Walls graduated from Barnard College and was a journalist in New York. Her memoir, The Glass Castle, has been a New York Times bestseller for more than six years. She is also the author of the instant New York Times bestsellers The Silver Star and Half Broke Horses, which was named one of the ten best books of 2009 by the editors of The New York Times Book Review. Walls lives in rural Virginia with her husband, the writer John Taylor.
Date of Birth:April 21, 1960
Place of Birth:Phoenix, Arizona
Education:B.A., Barnard College, 1984
Read an Excerpt
Those old cows knew trouble was coming before we did.
It was late on an August afternoon, the air hot and heavy like it usually was in the rainy season. Earlier we'd seen some thunderheads near the Burnt Spring Hills, but they'd passed way up to the north. I'd mostly finished my chores for the day and was heading down to the pasture with my brother, Buster, and my sister, Helen, to bring the cows in for their milking. But when we got there, those girls were acting all bothered. Instead of milling around at the gate, like they usually did at milking time, they were standing stiff-legged and straight-tailed, twitching their heads around, listening.
Buster and Helen looked up at me, and without a word, I knelt down and pressed my ear to the hard-packed dirt. There was a rumbling, so faint and low that you felt it more than you heard it. Then I knew what the cows knew -- a flash flood was coming.
As I stood up, the cows bolted, heading for the southern fence line, and when they reached the barbed wire, they jumped over it -- higher and cleaner than I'd ever seen cows jump -- and then they thundered off toward higher ground.
I figured we best bolt, too, so I grabbed Helen and Buster by the hand. By then I could feel the ground rumbling through my shoes. I saw the first water sluicing through the lowest part of the pasture, and I knew we didn't have time to make it to higher ground ourselves. In the middle of the field was an old cottonwood tree, broad-branched and gnarled, and we ran for that.
Helen stumbled, so Buster grabbed her other hand, and we lifted her off the ground and carried her between us as we ran. When we reached the cottonwood, I pushed Buster up to the lowest branch, and he pulled Helen into the tree behind him. I shimmied up and wrapped my arms around Helen just as a wall of water, about six feet high and pushing rocks and tree limbs in front of it, slammed into the cottonwood, dousing all three of us. The tree shuddered and bent over so far that you could hear wood cracking, and some lower branches were torn off. I feared it might be uprooted, but the cottonwood held fast and so did we, our arms locked as a great rush of caramel-colored water, filled with bits of wood and the occasional matted gopher and tangle of snakes, surged beneath us, spreading out across the lowland and seeking its level.
We just sat there in that cottonwood tree watching for about an hour. The sun started to set over the Burnt Spring Hills, turning the high clouds crimson and sending long purple shadows eastward. The water was still flowing beneath us, and Helen said her arms were getting tired. She was only seven and was afraid she couldn't hold on much longer.
Buster, who was nine, was perched up in the big fork of the tree. I was ten, the oldest, and I took charge, telling Buster to trade places with Helen so she could sit upright without having to cling too hard. A little while later, it got dark, but a bright moon came out and we could see just fine. From time to time we all switched places so no one's arms would wear out. The bark was chafing my thighs, and Helen's, too, and when we needed to pee, we had to just wet ourselves. About halfway through the night, Helen's voice started getting weak.
"I can't hold on any longer," she said.
"Yes, you can," I told her. "You can because you have to." We were going to make it, I told them. I knew we would make it because I could see it in my mind. I could see us walking up the hill to the house tomorrow morning, and I could see Mom and Dad running out. It would happen -- but it was up to us to make it happen.
To keep Helen and Buster from drifting off to sleep and falling out of the cottonwood, I grilled them on their multiplication tables. When we'd run through those, I went on to presidents and state capitals, then word definitions, word rhymes, and whatever else I could come up with, snapping at them if their voices faltered, and that was how I kept Helen and Buster awake through the night.
By first light, you could see that the water still covered the ground. In most places, a flash flood drained away after a couple of hours, but the pasture was in bottomland near the river, and sometimes the water remained for days. But it had stopped moving and had begun seeping down through the sinkholes and mudflats.
"We made it," I said.
I figured it would be safe to wade through the water, so we scrambled out of the cottonwood tree. We were so stiff from holding on all night that our joints could scarcely move, and the mud kept sucking at our shoes, but we got to dry land as the sun was coming up and climbed the hill to the house just the way I had seen it.
Dad was on the porch, pacing back and forth in that uneven stride he had on account of his gimp leg. When he saw us, he let out a yelp of delight and started hobbling down the steps toward us. Mom came running out of the house. She sank to her knees, clasped her hands in front of her, and started praying up to the heavens, thanking the Lord for delivering her children from the flood.
It was she who had saved us, she declared, by staying up all night praying. "You get down on your knees and thank your guardian angel," she said. "And you thank me, too."
Helen and Buster got down and started praying with Mom, but I just stood there looking at them. The way I saw it, I was the one who'd saved us all, not Mom and not some guardian angel. No one was up in that cottonwood tree except the three of us. Dad came alongside me and put his arm around my shoulders.
"There weren't no guardian angel, Dad," I said. I started explaining how I'd gotten us to the cottonwood tree in time, figuring out how to switch places when our arms got tired and keeping Buster and Helen awake through the long night by quizzing them.
Dad squeezed my shoulder. "Well, darling," he said, "maybe the angel was you."
We had a homestead on Salt Draw, which flowed into the Pecos River, in the rolling gritty grassland of west Texas. The sky was high and pale, the land low and washed out, gray and every color of sand. Sometimes the wind blew for days on end, but sometimes it was so still you could hear the dog barking on the Dingler ranch two miles upriver, and when a wagon came down the road, the dust it trailed hung in the air for a long time before drifting back to the ground.
When you looked out across the land, most everything you could see -- the horizon, the river, the fence lines, the gullies, the scrub cedar -- was spread out and flat, and the people, cattle, horses, lizards, and water all moved slowly, conserving themselves.
It was hard country. The ground was like rock -- save for when a flood turned everything to mud -- the animals were bony and tough, and even the plants were prickly and sparse, though from time to time the thunderstorms brought out startling bursts of wildflowers. Dad said High Lonesome, as the area was known, wasn't a place for the soft of head or the weak of heart, and he said that was why he and I made out just fine there, because we were both tough nuts.
Our homestead was only 160 acres, which was not a whole lot of land in that part of Texas, where it was so dry you needed at least five acres to raise a single head of cattle. But our spread bordered the draw, so it was ten times more valuable than land without water, and we were able to keep the carriage horses Dad trained, the milking cows, dozens of chickens, some hogs, and the peacocks.
The peacocks were one of Dad's moneymaking schemes that didn't quite pan out. Dad had paid a lot of money to import breeding peacocks from a farm back east. He was convinced that peacocks were a sure-fire sign of elegance and style, and that folks who bought carriage horses from him would also be willing to shell out fifty bucks for one of those classy birds. He planned to sell only the male birds so we'd be the sole peacock breeders this side of the Pecos.
Unfortunately, Dad overestimated the demand for ornamental birds in west Texas -- even among the carriage set -- and within a few years, our ranch was overrun with peacocks. They strutted around screeching and squawking, pecking our knees, scaring the horses, killing chicks, and attacking the hogs, though I have to admit it was a glorious sight when, from time to time, those peacocks paused in their campaign of terror to spread their plumes and preen.
The peacocks were just a sideline. Dad's primary occupation was the carriage horses, breeding them and training them. He loved horses despite the accident. When Dad was a boy of three, he was running through the stable and a horse kicked him in the head, practically staving in his skull. Dad was in a coma for days, and no one thought he'd pull through. He eventually did, but the right side of his body had gone a little gimp. His right leg sort of dragged behind him, and his arm was cocked like a chicken wing. Also, when he was young, he'd spent long hours working in the noisy gristmill on his family's ranch, which made him hard of hearing. As such, he talked a little funny, and until you spent time around him, you had trouble understanding what he said.
Dad never blamed the horse for kicking him. All the horse knew, he liked to say, was that some creature about the size of a mountain lion was darting by his flanks. Horses were never wrong. They always did what they did for a reason, and it was up to you to figure it out. And even though it was a horse that almost stove in Dad's skull, he loved horses because, unlike people, they always understood him and never pitied him. So, even though Dad was unable to sit in a saddle on account of the accident, he became an expert at training carriage horses. If he couldn't ride them, he could drive them.
I was born in a dugout on the banks of Salt Draw in 1901, the year after Dad got out of prison, where he'd been serving time on that trumped-up murder charge.
Dad had grown up on a ranch in the Hondo Valley in New Mexico. His pa, who'd homesteaded the land, was one of the first Anglos in the valley, arriving there in 1868, but by the time Dad was a young man, more settlers had moved into the area than the river could support, and there were constant arguments over property lines and, especially, water rights -- people claiming their upstream neighbors were using more than their fair share of water, while downstream neighbors made the same claim against them. These disputes often led to brawls, lawsuits, and shootings. Dad's pa, Robert Casey, was murdered in one such dispute when Dad was fourteen. Dad stayed on to run the ranch with his ma, but those disputes kept erupting, and twenty years later, when a settler was killed after yet another argument, Dad was convicted of murdering him.
Dad insisted he'd been framed, writing long letters to legislators and newspaper editors protesting his innocence, and after serving three years in prison, he was set free. Shortly after he was released, he met and married my mom. The prosecutor was looking into retrying the case, and Dad thought that would be less likely if he made himself scarce, so he and my mom left the Hondo Valley for High Lonesome, where they claimed our land along Salt Draw.
Lots of the folks homesteading in High Lonesome lived in dugouts because timber was so scarce in that part of Texas. Dad had made our home by shoveling out what was more or less a big hole on the side of the riverbank, using cedar branches as rafters and covering them over with sod. The dugout had one room, a packed earth floor, a wooden door, a waxed-paper window, and a cast-iron stove with a flue that jutted up through the sod roof.
The best thing about living in the dugout was that it was cool in the summer and not too cold in the winter. The worst thing about it was that, from time to time, scorpions, lizards, snakes, gophers, centipedes, and moles wormed their way out of our walls and ceilings. Once, in the middle of an Easter dinner, a rattler dropped onto the table. Dad, who was carving the ham, brought the knife right down behind that snake's head.
Also, whenever it rained, the ceilings and walls in the dugout turned to mud. Sometimes clumps of that mud dropped from the ceiling and you had to pat it back in place. And every now and then, the goats grazing on the roof would stick a hoof clear through and we'd have to pull them out.
Another problem with living in the dugout was the mosquitoes. They were so thick that sometimes you felt like you were swimming through them. Mom was particularly susceptible to them -- her bite marks sometimes stayed swollen for days -- but I was the one who came down with yellow jack fever.
I was seven at the time, and after the first day, I was writhing on the bed, shivering and vomiting. Mom was afraid that everyone else might catch the disease, so even though Dad insisted that you got it from mosquitoes, he rigged up a quilt to quarantine me off. Dad was the only one who was allowed behind it, and he sat with me for days, splashing me with spirit lotions, trying to bring the fever down. While I was delirious, I visited bright white places in another world and saw green and purple beasts that grew and shrank with every beat of my heart.
When the fever finally broke, I weighed some ten pounds less than I had before, and my skin was all yellow. Dad joked that my forehead had been so hot he almost burned his hand when he touched it. Mom poked her head behind the quilt to see me. "A fever that high can boil your brain and cause permanent damage," Mom said. "So don't ever tell anyone you had it. You do, you might have trouble catching a husband."
Mom worried about things like her daughters catching the right husband. She was concerned with what she called "proprieties." Mom had furnished our dugout with some real finery, including an Oriental rug, a chaise longue with a lace doily, velvet curtains that we hung on the walls to make it look like we had more windows, a silver serving set, and a carved walnut headboard that her parents had brought with them from back east when they moved to California. Mom treasured that headboard and said it was the only thing that allowed her to sleep at night because it reminded her of the civilized world.
Mom's father was a miner who had struck gold north of San Francisco and became fairly prosperous. Although her family lived in mining boom towns, Mom -- whose maiden name was Daisy Mae Peacock -- was raised in an atmosphere of gentility. She had soft white skin that was easily sunburned and bruised. When she was a child, her mother made her wear a linen mask if she had to spend any time in the sun, tying it to the yellow curls on the side of her face. In west Texas, Mom always wore a hat and gloves and a veil over her face when she went outdoors, which she did as seldom as possible.
Mom kept up the dugout, but she refused to do chores like toting water or carrying firewood. "Your mother's a lady," Dad would say by way of explaining her disdain for manual labor. Dad did most of the outdoor work with the help of our hand, Apache. Apache wasn't really an Indian, but he'd been captured by the Apaches when he was six, and they kept him until he was a young man, when the U.S. Cavalry -- with Dad's pa serving as a scout -- raided the camp and Apache ran out yelling, "Soy blanco! Soy blanco!"
Apache had gone home with Dad's pa and lived with the family ever since. By now Apache was an old man, with a white beard so long that he tucked it in his pants. Apache was a loner and sometimes spent hours staring at the horizon or the barn wall, and he'd also disappear into the range now and then for days at a time, but he always came back. Folks considered Apache a little peculiar, but that's what they also thought of Dad, and the two of them got along just fine.
To cook and wash, Mom had the help of our servant girl, Lupe, who had gotten pregnant and was forced to leave her village outside Juárez after the baby was born because she had brought shame on the family and no one would marry her. She was small and a little barrel-shaped and even more devoutly Catholic than Mom. Buster called her "Loopy," but I liked Lupe. Although her parents had taken her baby from her and she slept on a Navajo blanket on the dugout floor, Lupe never felt sorry for herself, and that was something I decided I admired most in people.
Even with Lupe helping her out, Mom didn't really care for life on Salt Draw. She hadn't bargained for it. Mom thought she'd married well when she took Adam Casey as her husband, despite his limp and speech impediment. Dad's pa had come over from Ireland during a potato blight, joined the Second Dragoons -- one of the first cavalry units of the U.S. Army -- where he served under Colonel Robert E. Lee, and was stationed on the Texas frontier, fighting Comanches, Apaches, and Kiowa. After leaving the army, he took up ranching, first in Texas, then in the Hondo Valley, and by the time he was killed, he had one of the biggest herds in the area.
Robert Casey was shot down as he walked along the main street of Lincoln, New Mexico. One version of the story held that he and the man who killed him had disagreed over an eight-dollar debt. The murderer's hanging was talked about for years in the valley because, once he'd been hanged, declared dead, cut down, and put in his pine box, people heard him moving around, so they took him out and strung him up again.
After Robert Casey's death, his children started arguing over how to split up the herd, which fostered bad blood that lasted for the rest of Dad's life. Dad inherited the Hondo Valley spread, but he felt his elder brother, who'd taken the herd to Texas, had cheated him out of his share, and he was constantly filing lawsuits and appeals. He continued the campaign even after moving to west Texas, and he was also battling away with the other ranchers in the Hondo Valley, traveling back to New Mexico to lodge an endless stream of claims and counterclaims.
One thing about Dad was that he had a terrible temper, and he usually returned from these trips trembling with rage. Part of it was his Irish blood, and part of it was his impatience with folks who had trouble understanding what he said. He felt those people thought he was a lamebrain and were always trying to cheat him, whether it was his brothers and their lawyers, traveling merchants, or half-breed-horse traders. He'd start sputtering and cursing, and from time to time, he'd become so incensed that he'd pull out his pistol and plug away at things, aiming to miss people -- most of the time.
Once he got into an argument with a tinker who overcharged to repair the kettle. When the tinker started to mock the way he talked, Dad ran inside to get his guns, but Lupe had seen what was coming and hidden them in her Navajo blanket. Dad worked himself into a lather, hollering about his missing guns, but I was convinced Lupe saved that tinker's life. And probably Dad's as well, since if he'd killed the tinker, he might have ended up swinging, hanged like the man who'd shot his pa.
Life would be easier, Dad kept saying, once we got our due. But we were only going to get it by fighting for it. Dad was all caught up in his lawsuits, but for the rest of us, the constant fight on Salt Draw was the one against the elements. The flash flood that sent Buster, Helen, and me up the cottonwood wasn't the only one that almost did us in. Floods were pretty common in that part of Texas -- you could count on one every couple of years -- and when I was eight, we were hit by another big one. Dad was away in Austin filing another claim about his inheritance when one night Salt Draw overflowed and poured into our dugout. The sound of thunder awoke me, and when I got up, my feet sank into muddy water up to my ankles. Mom took Helen and Buster to high ground to pray, but I stayed behind with Apache and Lupe. We barricaded the door with the rug and started bailing the water out the window. Mom came back and begged us to go pray with her on the hilltop.
"To heck with praying!" I shouted. "Bail, dammit, bail!"
Mom looked mortified. I could tell she thought I'd probably doomed us all with my blasphemy, and I was a little shocked at it myself, but with the water rising so fast, the situation was dire. We had lit the kerosene lamp, and we could see that the walls of the dugout were beginning to sag inward. If Mom had pitched in and helped, there was a chance we might have been able to save the dugout -- not a good chance, but a fighting chance. Apache and Lupe and I couldn't do it on our own, though, and when the ceiling started to cave, we grabbed Mom's walnut headboard and pulled it through the door just as the dugout collapsed in on itself, burying everything.
Afterward, I was pretty aggravated with Mom. She kept saying that the flood was God's will and we had to submit to it. But I didn't see things that way. Submitting seemed to me a lot like giving up. If God gave us the strength to bail -- the gumption to try to save ourselves -- isn't that what he wanted us to do?
But the flood turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It was all too much for that tenderfoot, Mr. McClurg, who lived up the draw in a two-room wooden house that he had built with timber he carted in from New Mexico. The flood washed away Mr. McClurg's foundation, and the walls fell apart. He said he'd had it with this godforsaken part of the world and decided to return to Cleveland. As soon as Dad got home from Austin, he had us all jump in the wagon and -- quickly, before anyone else in High Lonesome got the same idea -- we drove over to scavenge Mr. McClurg's lumber. We took everything: siding, rafters, beams, door frames, floorboards. By the end of the summer, we had built ourselves a brand-new wooden house, and after we whitewashed it, you almost couldn't tell that it had been patched together with someone else's old wood.
As we all stood there admiring our house the day we finished it, Mom turned to me and said, "Now, wasn't that flood God's will?"
I didn't have an answer. Mom could say that in hindsight, but it seemed to me that when you were in the middle of something, it was awful hard to figure out what part of it was God's will and what wasn't.
I asked Dad if he believed that everything that happened was God's will.
"Is and isn't," he said. "God deals us all different hands. How we play 'em is up to us."
I wondered if Dad thought that God had dealt him a bad hand, but I didn't feel it was my place to ask. From time to time, Dad mentioned the horse kicking him in the head, but none of us ever talked about his gimp leg or his trouble speaking.
Dad's speech impediment did make it sound a little like he was talking underwater. If he said, "Hitch up the carriage," it sounded to most people like "Ich'p uh urrj," and if he said, "Mama needs to rest," it sounded like "Uhmu neesh resh."
Toyah, the nearest little town, was four miles away, and sometimes when we went there, the kids followed Dad around imitating him, which made me want to thrash them something fierce. A lot of times, particularly when Mom was there, too, Buster, Helen, and I could do little more than glare at them. Dad usually acted like those kids didn't exist -- after all, he could hardly run for his gun to shoot them, like he had with that tinker -- but once, at the Toyah stable, when a couple of them were especially loud, I saw him glance down with a wounded look. While he and Buster were loading the wagon, I went back to the stable and tried to explain to those kids that they were hurting people's feelings, but all they did was snicker, so I shoved them into the manure pile and ran. I'd never done a bad thing that gave me so much satisfaction. My only regret was that I couldn't tell Dad about it.
What those kids didn't understand about Dad was that, although his speech did sound sort of marbly, he was smart. He'd been taught by a governess, and he was all the time reading books on philosophy and writing long letters to politicians like William Taft, William Jennings Bryan, and Frederick William Seward, who had been Abraham Lincoln's assistant secretary of state. Seward even wrote back, letters Dad treasured and kept in a locked tin box.
When it came to the written word, no one could string together sentences like Dad. His handwriting was elegant, if a little spidery, and his sentences were long and extravagant, filled with words like "mendacious" and "abscond" that most of the folks in Toyah would need a dictionary to understand. Two of Dad's biggest concerns in his letters were industrialization and mechanization, which he felt were destroying the human soul. He was also obsessed with Prohibition and phonetic spelling, both of which he saw as cures for mankind's tendency toward irrational behavior.
Dad had come of age seeing too many liquored-up people blazing away at one another. His pa had sold liquor from the store he ran on the Rio Hondo ranch, but his pa also once had to shoot a drunk who tried to shoot him. Alcohol, Dad said, made Indians and Irishmen crazy. After his pa was killed, Dad axed the store's liquor barrels, and to Apache's deep regret, he didn't allow anything stronger than tea on the ranch.
The inconsistent spelling of words in the English language also vexed Dad to no end. Digraphs such as "sh" and "ph" infuriated him, and silent letters made him grieve. If words were simply spelled the way they were pronounced, he argued, pretty much anyone who learned the alphabet could read, and that would virtually wipe out illiteracy.
Toyah had a one-room schoolhouse, but Dad thought that the teaching there was second-rate and he could do better tutoring me. Every day after lunch, when the sun was too hot to work outside, we did lessons -- grammar, history, arithmetic, science, and civics -- and when we were done, I tutored Buster and Helen. Dad's favorite subject was history, but he taught it with a decidedly west-of-the-Pecos point of view. As the proud son of an Irishman, he hated the English Pilgrims, whom he called "Poms," as well as most of the founding fathers. They were a bunch of pious hypocrites, he thought, who declared all men equal but kept slaves and massacred peaceful Indians. He sided with the Mexicans in the Mexican-American war and thought the United States had stolen all the land north of the Rio Grande, but he also thought the southern states should have had as much right to leave the union as the colonies had to leave the British Empire. "Only difference between a traitor and a patriot is your perspective," he said.
I loved my lessons, particularly science and geometry, loved learning that there were these invisible rules that explained the mysteries of the world we lived in. Smart as that made me feel, Mom and Dad kept saying that even though I was getting a better education at home than any of the kids in Toyah, I'd need to go to finishing school when I was thirteen, both to acquire social graces and to earn a diploma. Because in this world, Dad said, it's not enough to have a fine education. You need a piece of paper to prove you got it.
Mom did her best to keep us kids genteel. While I was teaching Buster and Helen, she brushed my hair one hundred strokes, careful to pull backward away from my scalp, putting marrow and lanolin into it to increase its luster. At night, she curled it into ringlets with little pieces of paper she called papillotes. "A lady's hair is her crowning glory," she said, and she was always going on about how my widow's peak was my best feature, but when I looked in the mirror, that little V of hair at the top of my forehead didn't seem like much to bank on.
Even though we lived four miles from Toyah and days would go by without seeing anyone outside the family, Mom worked very hard at being a lady. She was dainty, only four and a half feet tall, and her feet were so small that she had to wear button-up boots made for girls. To keep her hands elegantly white, she rubbed them with pastes made from honey, lemon juice, and borax. She wore tight corsets to give her a teeny waist -- I helped her lace them up -- but they had the effect of causing her to faint. Mom called it the vapors and said it was a sign of her high breeding and delicate nature. I thought it was a sign that the corset made it hard to breathe. Whenever she'd keel over, I'd have to revive her with smelling salts, which she kept in a crystal bottle tied around her neck with a pink ribbon.
Mom was closest to Helen, who had inherited her tiny hands and feet and her frail constitution. Sometimes they read poetry to each other, and in the stifling midafternoon heat, they'd simply lie together on Mom's chaise longue. But while she was close to Helen, she completely doted on Buster, the only son, whom she considered the future of the family. Buster was a rabbity little kid, but he had an irresistible smile, and maybe to compensate for Dad's speech impediment, he was one of the fastest and smoothest talkers in the county. Mom liked to say Buster could charm the sage off the brush. She was always telling Buster there were no limits on what he could become -- a railroad magnate, a cattle baron, a general, or even the governor of Texas.
Mom didn't quite know what to make of me. She feared she might have trouble marrying me off because I didn't have the makings of a lady. I was a little bowlegged, for one thing. Mom said it was because I rode horses too much. Also, my front teeth jutted out, so she bought me a red silk fan to cover my mouth. Whenever I laughed or smiled too big, Mom would say, "Lily, dear, the fan."
Since Mom wasn't exactly the most useful person in the world, one lesson I learned at an early age was how to get things done, and this was a source of both amazement and concern for Mom, who considered my behavior unladylike but also counted on me. "I never knew a girl to have such gumption," she'd say. "But I'm not too sure that's a good thing."
The way Mom saw it, women should let menfolk do the work because it made them feel more manly. That notion made sense only if you had a strong man willing to step up and get things done, and between Dad's gimp, Buster's elaborate excuses, and Apache's tendency to disappear, it was often up to me to keep the place from falling apart. But even when everyone was pitching in, we never got out from under all the work. I loved that ranch, though sometimes it did seem that instead of us owning the place, the place owned us.
We'd heard about electricity and how some big cities back east were wired with so many glowing lightbulbs that it looked like daytime even after the sun had set. But those wires had yet to reach west Texas, so you had to do everything by hand, heating irons on the stove to press Mom's blouses, cooking cauldrons of lye and potash over the fire to make soap, working the pump, then toting clean water in to wash the dishes and dirty water out to pour on the vegetable garden.
We'd also heard about the indoor plumbing they were installing in fancy houses back east, but no one in west Texas had it, and most people, including Mom and Dad, thought the idea of an indoor bathroom was vile and disgusting. "Who in the Lord's name would want a crapper in the house?" Dad asked.
Since I grew up listening to Dad, I always understood him completely, and when I turned five, he had me start helping him train the horses. It took Dad six years to train a pair of carriage horses properly, and he had six teams going at all times, selling off one team a year, which was enough to make ends meet. A team had to be perfectly matched in size and color, with no irregularities, and if one horse had white socks, the other needed them as well.
Of the six pairs of horses we'd have, Dad let the yearlings and two-year-olds simply run free in the pasture. "First thing a horse needs to learn is to be a horse," he liked to say. I worked with the three-year-olds, teaching them ground manners and getting them to accept the bit, then helped Dad harness and unharness the three pairs of older horses. I'd drive each pair in a circle while Dad stood in the middle, using a whip to drill them, making sure they lifted their feet high, changed gaits in unison, and flexed their necks smartly.
Everyone who spent time around horses, Dad liked to say, needed to learn to think like a horse. He was always repeating that phrase: "Think like a horse." The key to that, he said, was understanding that horses were always afraid. The only way they could save themselves from mountain lions and wolves was to kick out and run, and they ran like the wind, racing one another, because it was the slowest horse in the herd that got taken down by the predator. They were all the time looking for a protector, and if you could convince a horse that you'd protect him, he would do anything for you.
Dad had a whole vocabulary of grunts, murmurs, clucks, tocks, and whistles that he used to speak with horses. It was like their own private language. He never flogged their backs, instead using the whip to make a small popping sound on either side of their ears, signaling them without ever hurting or frightening them.
Dad also made tack for the horses, and he seemed happiest sitting by himself, humming at his sewing machine, working the foot pedal, surrounded by hides, shears, cans of neat's-foot oil, spools of stitching threads, and his big saddler's needles, no one bothering him, no one feeling sorry for him, no one scratching their heads trying to figure out what it was he wanted to say.
I was in charge of breaking the horses. It wasn't like breaking wild mustangs, because our horses had been around us since they were foals. Most times I simply climbed on bareback -- if the horse was too skinny, its spine sometimes rubbed a raw spot on my behind -- grabbed a handful of mane, gave them a nudge with my heels, and off we went, at first in awkward fits and starts, with a little crow hopping and swerving while the horse wondered what in tarnation a girl was doing on his back, but pretty soon the horse usually accepted his fate and we'd move along right nicely. After that, it was a matter of saddling him up and finding the best bit. Then you could set about training him.
Still, particularly with a green horse, you never knew what to expect, and I got thrown plenty, which terrified Mom, but Dad just waved her off and helped me up.
"Most important thing in life," he would say, "is learning how to fall."
Sometimes you fell in slow motion. The horse stumbled or shied, your weight got thrown forward, and you ended up hugging the horse's neck, your feet losing their lock in the stirrups. If you couldn't right yourself, your best bet was to let go and roll off to the side, then keep rolling once you hit the ground. The dangerous falls were the ones that happened so fast you didn't have time to react.
Dad once bought this big gray gelding for a song. The horse had been in the U.S. Cavalry, and since he was government-issue, Dad named him Roosevelt. Maybe it was because Roosevelt had been fed too much grain, maybe because he'd heard too many bugle calls and too many cannons fired, or maybe he was just born a worrier, but for whatever reason, he was one spooky horse. Roosevelt was beautiful to look at, with dappled hindquarters and dark legs, but sudden noises or movement made him jump up like a jackrabbit.
Shortly after we got Roosevelt, I was riding him back to the barn when a hawk swooped down in front of us. Roosevelt spun around and I was flung off him like a rock out of a slingshot. I tried to break the fall with my arm and ended up snapping my forearm clean in two. The jagged ends of the bones were poking up, making a bulge under my skin. Dad was always telling me I was one tough nut, but with my arm bent and dangling like that, danged if I didn't start bawling like a little girl.
Dad carried me into the kitchen, and when Mom saw me, she got so upset she started gasping for breath, telling Dad when she could get the words out that a little girl like me had no business breaking horses. Dad told Mom she had best leave until she could get control of herself, and she went into the bedroom, closing the door behind her. Dad set the bone and had Lupe cut strips of linen while he made up a paste of chalk, gum, eggs, and flour. Then he wrapped the linen strips around my arm and smeared them all over with the paste.
Dad took me in his arms and we set on the porch looking at the distant mountains. After a while, I stopped crying because there just wasn't any cry left in me by then. I sat there with my head on my shoulder like a little bird with a broken wing.
"Dumb horse," I finally said.
"Never blame the horse," Dad said. "It's just something he learned along the way. And horses aren't dumb. They know what they need to know. Matter of fact, I always figured horses are smarter than they let on. Kind of like the Indians who pretend they can't speak English because no good ever came from talking with the Anglos."
Dad told me I'd be back in the saddle in four weeks, and I was. "Next time," Dad said, "don't try to break a fall."
"Next time?" Mom asked. "I trust there won't be a next time."
"Hope for the best and plan for the worst," Dad said. "Anyway," he told me, "once you're going down, accept it and let your rump take the punishment. Your body knows how to fall."
Meanwhile, Dad enrolled Roosevelt in what he called Adam Casey's School for Wayward Horses. He tied Roosevelt's head to his tail and left him to stand in a stall until he learned patience. He filled empty tin cans with pebbles and tied those to his mane and tail until Roosevelt got used to commotion.
Once Roosevelt was reformed -- more or less -- Dad sold him at a nice profit to some easterners bound for California. While Dad didn't blame horses for anything, he wasn't sentimental about them, either. If you can't stop a horse, sell him, Dad liked to say, and if you can't sell him, shoot him.
Another one of my jobs was feeding the chickens and collecting the eggs. We had about two dozen chickens and a few roosters. First thing every morning, I'd toss them a handful of corn and some table scraps and add lime to their water to make the eggshells strong. In the spring, when the hens were really fertile, I could collect a hundred eggs a week. We'd set aside twenty-five or thirty for eating, and once a week I drove the buckboard into Toyah to sell the rest to the grocer, Mr. Clutterbuck, a pinched man who wore garters on his sleeves and toted up sales figures on the brown paper he wrapped your goods in. He paid a penny per egg, then sold them for two cents each, which seemed unfair to me since I'd done all the work, raising the chickens, collecting the eggs, and bringing them into town, but Mr. Clutterbuck just said, "Sorry, kid, that's the way the world works."
I also brought in peacock eggs, finally giving those showy old birds a way to earn their keep. At first I thought they'd fetch twice as much as chicken eggs, seeing as how they were twice as big, but Mr. Clutterbuck would give me only a penny each for them. "Egg's an egg," he said. I thought that danged grocer was cheating me because I was a girl, but there wasn't a whole lot I could do about it. That was the way the world worked.
Dad said it was good for me to go into town and bargain with Mr. Clutterbuck over egg prices. It honed my math and taught me the art of negotiation, all of which was going to help me achieve my Purpose in Life. Dad was a philosopher and had what he called his Theory of Purpose, which held that everything in life had a purpose, and unless it achieved that purpose, it was just taking up space on the planet and wasting everybody's time.
That was why Dad never bought any of us kids toys. Play was a waste of time, he said. Instead of playing house or playing with dolls, girls were better off cleaning a real house or looking after a real baby if their Purpose in Life was to become a mother.
Dad didn't actually forbid us from ever playing, and sometimes Buster, Helen, and I rode over to the Dingler ranch for a game of baseball with the Dingler kids. Because we didn't have enough players for two full teams, we made up a lot of our own rules, one being that you could get a runner out by throwing the ball at him. Once, when I was ten and trying to steal a base, one of the Dingler boys threw the ball at me hard and it hit me in the stomach. I doubled over, and when the pain wouldn't go away, Dad took me into Toyah, where the barber who sometimes sewed people up said my appendix had been ruptured and I needed to get up to the hospital in Santa Fe. We caught the next stagecoach, and by the time we got to Santa Fe, I was delirious, and what I remember next was waking up in the hospital with stitches on my stomach, Dad sitting next to me.
"Don't worry, angel," he said. The appendix, he explained, was a vestigial organ, which meant it had no Purpose. If I had to lose an organ, I'd chosen the right one. But, he went on, I'd almost lost my life, and to what end? I'd only been playing a game of baseball. If I wanted to risk my life, I should do it for a Purpose. I decided Dad was right. All I had to do was figure out what my Purpose was. Copyright © 2009 by Jeannette Walls
What People are Saying About This
“Jeannette Walls . . . once again proves that the combination of gifted storyteller with great stories is both rare and intoxicating."The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“[An] eloquent tribute to a pragmatic heroine . . . A powerhouse—fast-moving, fearless and impossible to forget.”—Michelle Green, People
[Jeannette Walls is] the third generation of a line of indomitable women whose paths she has inscribed on the permanent record, enriching the common legend of our American past.”—Liesl Schillinger, New York Times Book Review (cover review)
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Half Broke Horses includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Jeannette Walls’s grandmother Lily Casey Smith is the kind of woman who built this country: resourceful, hardworking, and smart. Full of spunk and with a strong will to do whatever she puts her mind to, she can break a wild horse by the time she is six years old. At age fifteen, she leaves home to teach in a frontier town, riding five hundred miles across New Mexico with nothing but her pony for company and her pearl-handled revolver for protection. She tries living and working in Chicago, where she meets her first husband, but betrayal and loss soon drive her back to ranch life—caring for livestock and respecting the land are what she does best. Together, she and her second husband manage a 180,000-acre ranch and Lily uses her incredible pluck and ingenuity to supplement their meager income. They raise two children, one of whom is Jeannette Walls’s mother, Rosemary Smith Walls. With little more than Lily’s resourcefulness to guide the way, the family will weather tornadoes, droughts, floods, personal tragedy, and the Great Depression. In this tale of extreme hardship emerges a story of one woman whose spirit can’t be broken.
Questions for Discussion
1. Jeannette Walls has said that she tried writing this book in the third person but that it didn’t work for her. Do you think you are closer to Lily because you get her story in her own voice? Did you “see” Lily Casey Smith as real? What is your response to the first person voice of the book?
2. When Lily’s father dies, she and Rosemary drive his body from Tucson back to the ranch in West Texas. Rosemary is embarrassed to be seen driving with a corpse and ducks down in the car when they stop at a red light (pg. 198). “Life’s too short, honey,” Lily tells Rosemary, “to worry what other people think of you.” What does Lily’s reaction to this behavior show about her character? Does she give much credence to what other people think of her? What effect do you think her mother’s attitude had on Rosemary?
3. Following Helen’s suicide, Lily says, “When people kill themselves, they think they’re ending the pain, but all they're doing is passing it on to those they leave behind” (pg. 113). Do you agree with this statement?
4. Lily seems willing to sacrifice everything to defend her principles and the rights of others. On more than one occasion, she is fired from a teaching position for refusing to back down from what she believes in. Do you applaud Lily’s moral conviction in these instances? Or did you hope that Lily would learn to compromise?
5. Lily has high expectations for her children, from sending them off to boarding school despite their protests to enforcing strict rules for keeping animals as pets. When Rosemary falls in love with a wild horse and asks her mother if she can keep it, Lily replies, “The last thing we need around here is another half-broke horse” (pg. 190). How might this statement apply to Lily’s children as well? Are Lily’s expectations of her children particularly high or rather a reflection of the times? Why do you think this phrase was chosen as the title of the book?
6. When a group of Brooklyn ladies visits the ranch, Rosemary and Lily take them for a car ride they’ll never forget. Lily concludes their encounter by saying, “You ride, you got to know how to fall, and you drive, you got to know how to crash” (pg. 175). How does this statement apply to Lily’s life as a whole? What does she mean by knowing “how to fall”?
7. Discuss Lily’s husband Jim. How does his personality complement her strong nature?
8. While attempting to prevent the ranch from flooding, Lily tells Rosemary, “Do the best you can...That's all anyone can do.” Her instructions are echoed by Jim's declaration: “We did a good job—good as we could” (pg. 152). Why do you think Lily and Jim have both adopted this philosophy? To which other instances in their lives are they likely to have applied this rationale?
9. Lily comes off as tough and resilient, but there are moments in this book of vast heartbreak, where you see her façade crack. How does the author handle the death of Lily’s friend in Chicago? Her first husband’s duplicity? Her sister’s suicide? Her suspicions of her husband Jim?
10. Walls calls Half Broke Horses a “true life novel.” In her author’s note, she explains why. Do you agree with this label? What do you think of the “true life” genre?
11. “Helen’s beauty, as far as I was concerned, had been a curse, and I resolved that I would never tell Rosemary she was beautiful” (pg. 119). Examine Lily’s relationship with her daughter, Rosemary, and, in The Glass Castle, Rosemary’s relationship with Jeannette. How does each generation try to compensate for the one before? How does each mother try to avoid the mistakes or pain imposed upon her by her own mother?
Questions for readers who have also read The Glass Castle
1. In Half Broke Horses, Lily’s father decides to bring her home from school so that he can use her tuition money to breed dogs. This instance of selfishness bears a close resemblance to Rex Walls’s behavior in The Glass Castle when he takes the money Jeannette’s sister has been saving to escape Welch, WV, and goes on a drinking binge. Over and over these men disappoint their children, and yet they are forgiven. Talk about the lack of bitterness in both of these books. How do the children rationalize their parents’ behavior?
2. “There was a big difference between needing things and wanting things—though a lot of people had trouble telling the two apart—and at the ranch, I could see, we’d have pretty much everything we’d need but precious little else” (pg. 134–5). How might this description refer to Lily’s life as a whole? What effect did growing up without much have on Rosemary Walls, whom we learn more about in The Glass Castle?
3. Both The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses open with a climactic event from the main character’s childhood that has left a memorable impression on her. Compare each event and the narrators’ descriptions of the events. How do these retellings set the stage for what’s to come? Why do you think Walls chose to use them as the openings of both books?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Browse the Internet for a look at Jeannette Walls’s online presence. You may wish to read the extensive interview with her at http://gothamist.com/2005/05/27/jeannette_walls_author_the_glass_castle_gossip_columnist_msnbccom.php or watch the video of her appearance on the Stephen Colbert show at http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/85068/april-10-2007/jeannette-walls.
2. Lily’s life takes her to many places, from the ranches of her childhood to the frontier towns where she was a teacher. Bring a map of the western United States to your book club meeting and map out the locations of Lily’s life as a group. Or, give a copy of the map to each reader in advance so he or she can fill it out as they read.
3. Rent a movie to learn more about Billy the Kid, who was Lily’s father's hero. You may wish to rent the 1938 film Billy the Kid Outlawed or take a look at the Discovery Channel 2007 special Billy the Kid: Unmasked, which uses DNA to reveal the Kid’s true identity. Both are available via Netflix or at your local video store. Don't forget how Lily and Jim felt about the way cowboys were portrayed in the movies!
A conversation with Amy Reiter
In the weeks leading up to the publication of the new book, Walls shared her thoughts via email about the rewards of digging through family history, the importance of truth in memoir, and why writing about gossip left her worried she was "turning mean as an old yard dog."
The Barnes & Noble Review: You mention in the author's note to Half Broke Horses that you had originally intended to write a book not about your grandmother, as this one is, but about your mother. What made you change your mind?
Jeannette Walls: It was Mom who kept suggesting I make the story about her mother. At first, I resisted because I don't see myself as a fiction writer and my grandmother Lily died when I was eight, so I couldn't interview her.
I had intended to write about Lily's early life as the backstory, but I was stunned by the number of anecdotes and the amount of detail Mom had about them. And when I sat down to write the book, I found that those stories kept upstaging Mom's. So I thought, what the heck, I'll write Lily's story -- in first person because I found it easier to capture her voice that way -- then I'll change it into third person, taking out what details I don't know or qualifying them with phrases such as "it is likely that . . . " or "the evidence suggests that what happened next . . . ." That sort of device is valuable in scholarly histories where the record is unclear or contradictory, but I feel it sometimes takes the reader out of the story. I showed the first-person version to my agent and editor, and they both told me to leave it alone.
BNR: You call the book a "true-life novel." Howmuch of it is based on fact, and how much of it did you make up? And did you privilege fact over fiction in every case or allow yourself to take liberties with known facts to enhance the story?
JW: Half Broke Horses is simply a compilation of family stories, stitched together with gaps filled in. They're the sort of tales that pretty much everyone has heard from their parents or grandparents or had passed down from great-grandparents.
I got it as close to the truth as I could. I didn't set out to tart it up or make it more dramatic, but rather to make it more readable, fluid, and immediate. The simple fact that I told it all in first person in my opinion disqualifies it from being called nonfiction.
Calling it a "true-life novel" was the decision of my editor, Nan Graham. I thought it was very smart choice. The phrase has been used before, for Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song, which was written largely from transcripts of interviews with people involved in the Gary Gilmore saga but, as I understand it, Mailer took minor liberties that made the book cross over the line from nonfiction to fiction.
BNR: What was the process of researching the book like for you? What challenges did you face as you dug through your maternal family history? What were the biggest surprises and greatest rewards?
JW: I interviewed Mom for about an hour nearly every day for a year. She was fabulous. She has a stunning recall for certain types of information, though she's the first to admit that she gets shaky on facts such as numbers and dates. But not once did she forbid me from using anything or put controls on what I wrote or how I wrote it. I used a couple of stories that I remember from Dad -- when he took Lily for an airplane ride, for example -- and I also talked to some other relatives, and actually found a couple of books that included passages about a few of my ancestors, sometimes confirming what Mom said, sometimes with slight contradictions.
I debated trying to do some heavy-duty research -- exactly who shot my grandfather's father, for example, is a matter of some debate -- but most of the people in the book are long gone with no or little written record left behind, so there's no way to check most of it. Ultimately, I decided to use almost exclusively what Mom told me.
I think anyone digging through a family history would find it fascinating. These patterns emerge, and behavior that seemed inexplicable suddenly makes sense. I urge anyone who's lucky enough to still have parents or grandparents around to consider interviewing them. You come away thinking, "Wow, now I understand why this all happened this way."
BNR: It's interesting that your mother didn't put any limits on what you wrote, though that's certainly consistent with the portrait of her you've drawn in your books. She's just not that bothered by how others may judge her. How have other members of your family reacted to having their lives. or their relatives' lives. written about by you and widely published?
JW: Everyone in the family has been really great about it. Mom can be accused of many things, but being a control freak is not one of them. She told me once that she sees certain things differently than I do, but she can understand why I saw them that way, and I had to tell the truth as I saw it. I think that with all the things I wrote about Mom, that's a pretty amazing attitude to have.
BNR: You're used to writing in your own voice. In Half Broke Horses, you are conjuring the voice of another person, someone who died when you were a small child. How did you channel Lily's distinctive voice? How clearly do you remember it? How much of it is your own creation?
JW: Lily was one of those people who, once you met her, she was seared onto your brain, whether you liked it or not. I always adored her, but not everyone did. Everything about Lily was loud: her voice, her clothes, her piano playing. She cussed like a sailor, danced so as to shake the rafters, and was always pulling out her gun or pulling out her false teeth.
When I tried to write the book in Mom's voice, it was much more of a struggle. We're so different, and even though I think I understand her, she's always surprising me. I actually found it much easier to slip into Lily's voice -- or at least, what I recall as being her voice. While I was growing up, Mom always said, "You're just like my mother" -- and I don't think she meant it as a compliment. I'm not a carbon copy of Lily, but I'm afraid I'm more like her than I care to admit.
BNR: Personally, this book must have presented very different challenges than The Glass Castle, in which you were revealing a past you had kept hidden from many people in your life. Recounting painful details from your own childhood must have been incredibly difficult, if ultimately liberating. How did the process of writing this book compare to writing that book, emotionally?
JW: Getting a perspective on someone else's life is much easier than getting a perspective on your own. The difficulty in Half Broke Horses came in trying to be true to someone else's spirit and story. I don't know how I did, and honestly, I'll be curious to see how readers react.
I was terrified in the days before the publication of The Glass Castle. I thought people would hate it, so what do I know?
BNR: As we learn here, your grandmother, Lily, lived an exciting, eventful life -- and was incredibly self-motivated, smart, and resilient. In The Glass Castle, she appears as a patch of safety, sanity, and stability amidst the chaos of your childhood. (It is in her house -- before and after her death -- that you spent your happiest young days.) What sort of influence has she had on your life, on your choices, on who you have become? Has that influence changed as a result of writing this book?
JW: Although Lily was a very strong woman, opinionated, unpredictable, she was also a lot of fun. I remember once we went to a restaurant where music was playing and she grabbed a sailor out of his chair. "Don't know how to jitterbug?" she asked. "Well, honey, you're about to learn." Yet she also had rules and order in her life that we never did in our household. When we visited her, we always had three meals a day and she'd take us kids out to buy us clothes in this big car that was so fancy it had blinking turn signals. In our cars, we were lucky if the windows rolled up.
I grew up with absolutely no baby photos. Mom and Dad didn't take pictures of us kids, and if they had, those photos would have been left behind in some late night skedaddle. But about a year ago, my cousin Shelly (the daughter of my mother's brother, who I'd lost touch with in recent years) handed over a pile of photos that my grandmother had left behind. In it, was a group shot of me when I was about two, with my sister Lori and brother Brian. We were all wearing new clothes. We must have gone to visit Lily, she took us shopping, and had our pictures taken. That sort of thing happened a lot to most other kids in America, but for me, it was a temporary visit into the world of stability. I always thought of Lily as proof that you could have a comfortable life if you made up your mind to do it. Lily left me with the notion that if you had the gumption to grab even the wildest life by the horns, you could wrestle it into submission.
She exited my life early, but she planted the seeds before she did. That's what most teachers do.
BNR: Your mother, whom readers may feel they know quite well by now, as she has played a central role in both The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses, helped you with this book. Can you talk about how your relationship with her has changed in recent years -- since the death of your father and as a result of your last book, and of this book?
JW: A lot of readers of The Glass Castle had real problems with Mom, and I understand that, but one of the things I came to grasp through researching and writing Half Broke Horses is why Mom is the way she is. She not only knew you could survive without electricity and indoor plumbing, but for her, it was the ideal time of her childhood. She grew up with almost complete freedom and could not understand why someone would trade that freedom for stability and security. That isn't to say I agree with her, but understanding and accepting that this is the way Mom is has been very liberating.
I get along great with Mom now. She's a hoot. She's always upbeat, and has a very different take on life than most people. She's a lot of fun to be around -- as long as you're not looking for her to take care of you. She lives with my husband and me now -- not in the house with us because I have not reached that level of understanding and compassion, but in an outbuilding about a hundred yards away. It's a bit of a mess so I don't look inside, because when I do, I can feel the Lily inside me getting all riled up. But Mom is great with the animals, loves to sing and dance and ride horses, and is still painting like a fiend. She doesn't seem that interested in selling her paintings these days and when my husband asked her why, she said, "I don't need the money anymore."
BNR: It sounds like you're taking care of her in a way she seems to have been unable to take care of you. How did she come to live with you? When we last heard from her, at the end of The Glass Castle, she was fighting for squatters' rights to stay in an apartment on New York's Lower East Side. What happened?
JW: Several years ago, the abandoned building where Mom had been squatting for more than a decade without heat caught fire and she was homeless again. She was back on the streets again at age 72. I begged her to come down and live with John and me. She said Virginia is too boring, and besides, she's not a freeloader. I told her we could really use help with the horses, and she said she'd be right down.
There's possibly an opportunity for her to go back to New York. My brother Brian is telling me to do whatever it takes to keep her in Virginia. He says he's never seen her happier or calmer and he actually has a decent relationship with her now.
I don't think she'll leave, and I hope not. We check in on her at least once a day but she mostly takes care of herself. We have dinner with her a couple of times a week, but she's pretty independent.
BNR: As a writer who is contending with an amalgam of fact and fiction (and clearly acknowledging it), what is your take on "memoirists" who fudge details or even make things up wholesale, without letting the reader know? Is it a major betrayal of the reader, or should we expect memoirs to be somewhat subjective?
JW: Of course memoirs are subjective. That's the conceit -- this is one person's perspective on his or her life -- and I think it's one that most readers understand. None of my siblings have contradicted a single fact in The Glass Castle, but if any of them had written about our lives, it would have had an entirely different tone and perspective.
There is, however, a big difference between perspective and making things up. If the writer feels that he or she has to tinker with the facts, that's fine. But be up front about it and call it fiction.
To me, the whole point of writing a memoir is to say, here is the story of my life, and maybe you can learn something from my experience without actually having to go through it. So to make stuff up -- to present something that's not true as actually having happened -- obliterates the purpose of sharing your story. To say, here's how I struggled with poverty, or here's how I beat drugs, or here's how I survived the Holocaust, and then to be dishonest about it is a terrible violation of the trust that a reader gives an author.
BNR: How has your life changed as a result of the literary fame brought by the success of The Glass Castle? And did your decision to finally reveal your past to the world change the way others treat you and your own sense of self?
JW: Oh gosh. I'm hardly famous. Once in a while, someone will recognize me at an airport or something like that, and they're always incredibly kind, but it's not like I need to wear disguises to go out in public.
I was so embarrassed by my past that I expected my story to be met with contempt and ridicule, but people have been really compassionate -- and danged smart -- about it all. It's all been quite humbling, really. It made me see what a knucklehead I'd been for so long and has helped me trust other people. And myself.
BNR: That's funny, the disguises. It really would have been the ultimate irony if by coming clean and ditching the gossip world you'd ended up as paparazzi bait.
JW: Anyone who writes about other people for a living should be written about at least once. It's very interesting to have the tables turned.
BNR: How did your past life as a gossip columnist and journalist prepare you for your current work as a memoirist and novelist? What ultimately prompted you to leave that work behind, not long after the publication of The Glass Castle? Do you miss anything about that long chapter in your life?
JW: I think I was drawn to gossip because I wanted to show that the truth is more complicated than what we see; that there's always a story behind the façade. But the irony -- some would say "hypocrisy" -- of tracking down other people's secrets while hiding my own has not escaped me.
I do believe that the truth will set you free, but the truth is usually way too complex to be condensed into a couple of paragraphs. I don't think that gossip has to be cruel; what interests most people in it is the psychology of what makes people tick -- including these famous people who we turn to for moral touchstones, the same way that people used to use Greek gods or fairy tales. And I absolutely don't condemn people who do it for a living, or those who follow it. Still, sometimes gossip crosses into cruelty -- which I tried to avoid, though I'm sure I sometimes failed, and shame on me for that.
It's easy to make fun of people who seem to have it all -- money, fame, power -- but the more I found out about these people, the more sympathetic they became. Writing about them just started feeling really wrong. And no, I don't miss a thing about it.
BNR: How do you think the world of gossip has changed since you wrote your first column years ago? And what do you think of those changes?
JW: People always say, "Oh, gossip's the ugliest it's ever been." But people have always been interested in this stuff. What's changed in the last few years isn't our appetite for information; it's just that with the Internet, it's become much easier for everyone to weigh in. Any bozo with a laptop can have a voice, not just the rich and powerful bozos with printing presses, and I think that a lot of good has come with that, too. It's more democratic, if you will, with all the messiness and chaos that comes with this level of participation.
BNR: You have written about your own family twice now -- and it seems like there are so many fascinating characters in it, you could keep exploring branch after branch of your family tree. Where do you plan to go from here? Will you keep writing about your family, or do you want to ... branch out?
JW: I have no idea what I'll write about next. Or if I'll write again.
BNR: So you're not one of those writers who feels absolutely compelled to write?
JW: Oh, not at all. I not only have to feel I have something to say, it has to be worth sharing.
BNR: What's up withThe Glass Castle, the movie?
JW: It's been optioned. We'll see. There are some very beautiful actresses interested in playing me, which I find amusing as all get out, but as we've seen, these hot starlets are very good at de-glamming themselves.
BNR: Any names you care to share? And are you at all afraid of handing over your life story to someone else?
JW: I'm not supposed to discuss casting. In case it doesn't work out, we don't want someone to be known as not the first choice. I know nothing about filmmaking, so I'm staying out of the whole thing and trusting the folks who are working on it.
BNR: I'm wondering about the book's title. Do you consider yourself "half broke"?
JW: Oh, I'm definitely half broke! For more than 25 years I tried to be all civilized and citified, going to black-tie events in my designer clothes, rubbing elbows with movers and shakers, but it was a world that I never belonged in. When you try to be something that you're not, you get a little weird, and I worried I was turning mean as an old yard dog.
I think that coming clean about my past in The Glass Castle allowed me to be honest about who I really am, and I could let down all those defenses I'd built up over the years. Now, living out in the country, running around with my hounds and assorted barn cats, my husband says, "You certainly have changed since you lived in the city. You've gone back to being Mountain Goat."
BNR: Writers are often asked to give advice for aspiring writers. But your writing confronts so many deep human struggles -- between truth and illusion, selfishness and selflessness, adventure and stability, just to name a few -- that a broader question seems in order: What's your best piece of advice?
JW: It's the advice Mom gave me when I asked her what the heck I was supposed to tell people when they asked me about her. She said, "Just tell the truth."
Getting at the truth isn't all that easy. And you might not be ready to share the truth with others, but in my experience, people are wiser than I had expected. If you're not prepared to tell others the truth, at the very least, you should try to be honest with yourself.\
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
We follow the life of Lily Casey Smith, born in a dugout in Texas in 1901. A larger than life character with more gumption and common sense than are usually bestowed upon one person, Lily is not only a survivor of hard times, but she learns how to come out ahead when faced with adversity. Not one to feel sorry for herself, she has no use for weak people (or interest in what other people think of her). Lily overcomes a poor childhood in what was basically a dysfunctional family, a first marriage to a bigamist, and a lack of education (to name just a few of the problems she dealt with). Her second marriage, her children, and the ranch make up most of the story. I definitely recommend checking this out. Another book that you must read if you're a fan of Jeannette Walls, Augusten Burroughs, or memoirs in general (make sure you start reading it early because you won't sleep until you've finished it!) is "I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE."
"Half Broke Horses" is the prequel to "The Glass Castle," Walls' first book. Although it doesn't matter which you read first, I would recommend reading HBH before GC as it gives perspective on the background of this strange but fascinating family. Walls writes with candor and humor and certainly captures the spirit of her grandmother and the time period of the wild west. This is a vibrant biography-cum-novel of her spunky grandmother living in the olden days who was a womens' libber before it became fashionable to be one. Highly recommended.
Not a bad narrative regarding life of an amazing pioneer. While there was nothing to rivet the reader in the way of a plot, it gave insight to the struggles of life as the 1800's gave way to the 1900's and how things changed by mid-century. It was an interesting read. Perhaps it had special meaning to me because my own parents (as children) settled in the SE corner of New Mexico prior to statehood. The tales of ranching in a desert area rang true. While in today's world, it's inconceivable to allow a teenager to head "that direction" for 500 miles, my dad told similar stories and this narrative helped me to understand his eye-opening tales were more the norm for the day. It was a time when babies left infancy and practically entered adulthood with very little chance of childhood in the middle; a time when survival required using your wits with very little margin for error; a time when your word was your bond and a handshake was a contract.
I loved "The Glass Castle". I was drawn in and could not leave until I finished the last page. I recommended it to everyone. "Half Broke Horses" didn't have the same pull, but it is a terrific read. I fell in love with so many of the characters, especially Lilly Casey Smith. She was a woman who didn't let anything get in her way. She just changed the direction she was headed, but never gave up on life. Getting to know Lilly gives you an insight into why Jeannette Walls is the survivor she is. I can't imagine what she will write next; I will probably read it.
This tale of the writer's grandmother, a ranching, airplane flying, teacher finding her own way in the Southwest of the turn of the 20th century, should entertain and inspire and humble anyone. My husbands grandmother went to the same Sisters of Loretto school that Lily Casey Smith went to about the same time and it made me stop and think a lot more about where the family had come from. A lot of hard, scrappy work, by people who didn't complain about it, and who were truly inventive and grateful and connected to this earth, quite a lot more than some of us today who claim to be environmentalists. Not that I'm against environmentalists, but sometimes we do act like we invented the idea and these old ranchers and farmers of days past had tremendous respect for the land, resources and animals, because they dealt with them on a life and death basis every day. Jeannette Walls other book, The Glass Castle is also great. I hope she writes more.
I previously enjoyed The Glass Castle, and Half Broke Horses is even better. The characters literally come to life on the pages, and Ms. Walls does a great job of weaving her vivid imagination with fact. The reader shares the ups and downs of the hard (but ultimately rewarding) lives of these characters. I found myself feeling sorrow, anger, and joy throughout the novel. A great read that holds the reader by the heart!
I read and loved Walls' first book, "The Glass Castle," so I was anxious to read her "true life" biography of her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith. Lily was one tough nut; in those days you had to be if you were going to survive. She was a woman before her time in many ways and did what she had to do to make her way in the hard, gritty life out West. Her marriage to Big Jim was not the result of a typical moonlight and roses courtship, but you felt there was a sincere love and respect between the two. I had to keep reminding myself that this was not a true "biography" because it does read like one and made me wonder just how much and what was the "true" contained in those pages. After reading "The Glass Castle," I came away admiring Walls for the respect she shows her parents eventhough she and her siblings had a very rough childhood. Her parents both had such serious issues that it should have given them pause in their desire to have a family, but they had their dreams and talents too which did, in many ways, benefit and inspire those children. That seems to be where Walls has decided to put her focus - in her skilled and thoughtful writing of "Glass Castle", she shows a compassionate understanding of her parents; and pays tribute to her grandmother and her history in "Half Broke Horses."
Jeannette Walls called this book a novel because she had to use her imagination to fill in some gaps in her knowledge, but the basic story is that of her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith. And what a character she is! Breaking horses before she was 6, helping run a ranch at 11, traveling far from home to teach in tiny, remote towns at 15, dealing with a worthless husband who was not what he seemed while still a young woman, learning to fly in the early days of aviation...Lily was an entirely original, unique personality and her story kept me enthralled from beginning to end!
I thought that the story was interesting for me because I know nothing of ranches or horses or having a mother who played lady like this one. I still am skeptical about some of the tales told here, even though the author swears she could authenticate them all from another member of the family.
Loved the book. Read her first one years ago, couldn't wait to get this one. Lily Casey, what a person she was! The beginning of the book, it grabbed you right away after that flood. She was a survivor, never felt sorry for herself. Her sister, if that had happened to her today, it's nothing. And her dad, with that gimp, I can picture him, can't you? Lily Casey, nothing she couldn't do. The word "can't" was not in her vocabulary. Pittsburgh Frank
This author is amazingly wonderful. Her character as a human being should be crop dusted over the entire world where people feel life is losing it's common sense....Read her "Ice Castles" also and become more connected with her and her family!
What an incredible story. Beautifully written - you'll shake your head at the tenacity of the characters and wipe tears from the turmoil and heartache. After reading this book, I purchased Walls' "The Glass Castle" and "The Silver Star".
I think this is the best book I've ever read, it's for sure the first book that as soon as I was finished reading it, I started over and read it again. Lily Casey Smith was amazing from childhood to older adult, she took on life in a determined manner, she took plenty of licks and kept on going. She didn't whine or cry, she picked herself up continued on with her life. There are so many details and lessons in this book, I think everyone should read it!
This book was an excellent prequel to "The Glass Castle", and definitely has more impact if you have already read Glass Castle.
Couldn't put it down. I was afraid i wouldn't enjoy it as much The Glass Castle. I was wrong, i loved it
the only sad thing is that it is too short! i want more!!!
Heart warming and heart breaking with laughs and tears in proportion. I read it while visiting my sister, a true "bookworm" and 30-year teacher of high school english (now retired). As she puttered in her garden I would walk around reading passages from my nook. Almost without realizing it I had read nearly the entire book outloud to her. It was the most enjoyable "read" either of us could recall. The life and times of Lily Casey Smith was absolutely enthralling. The succinct prose of Ms Walls always a delight and most appreciated. Steve Tidrick
Both Glass House and this one are well worth reading.
I read this before Glass Castle and I am so glad that I did. It takes place before GC and I think that reading it first makes it easier to relate to the characters in GC. I absolutely loved the heroine in this book.
i loved the glass castle and really thought i was going to enjoy this book. i hate to say it but by the time i finished the book i was just relieved it was over. i held out and thought i would feel the connection and interest the way i did in walls' first book but it just wasnt there...
I loved this story about the author's grandmother Lily Casey. This is a very good well written and heartfelt story. I have not read anything else by this author but have heard of her other book "The Glass Castle" and plan on reading that one soon. A definite must read!!!
I thoroughly enjoyed Half Broke Horses. It was amazing to travel through time and see Arizona from the turn of the century thru the early 1970's. Lily Casey Smith was truly one tough woman and she proved she could and would do whatever it took. She accomplished so much during her colorful life. Her granddaughter, Jeannette Walls, tells Lily's story beautifully. Her writing style allowed me to see what Lily saw, feel what Lily felt and laugh with Lily at life's extremes. I would highly recommend this book to everyone.
I really enjoy reading this author's work. If you haven't read The Glass Castle then you should do so, I enjoyed it so much that I bought Half-Broke Horses and downloaded it onto my new Nook. Personally, I enjoy reading about the way people lived in the days gone by, but Jeanette has a real talent for bringing the characters to life making it all the more consuming and harder to stop reading. Whenever I'm done with one of her books I can't help doing a search for more of her works. If you loved The Glass Castle then you are going to enjoy reading what Granny's life was like.
A friend gave me this book because she knows I love reading about interesting real life people. She said this one was right up my alley and she was right! From the first pages I was completely drawn into Lily's world. Her hard working life as a child made me contemplate how relatively easy my own childhood had been in comparison! Her nearly month long trip with her horse patches as her only companion to go and teach children in a one room schoolhouse was remarkable! Her adventures didn't end when she reached adulthood, they just included her new husband as well as her children. Lily led a truly amazing life! This book left me wishing that I could have actually met and sat down with the main character and heard all of these stories directly from the "horses mouth"! I highly recommend this one!
Very enjoyable reading of past years. Reminds one of what the West was like in the last century.