Jeannette Walls has the blessed curse of a debut smash-hit. With her memoir The Glass Castle selling more than 2.5 million copies, the heat must have been on while working through Half Broke Horses: a True-Life Novel. Well, fear not. Hearing her readers cry for more family lore, Walls returns with the irresistible tale of grandmother Lily Casey Smith.
Born in a dugout on hard country, Lily Casey might as well have popped out with her sleeves rolled up and her boots on. High Lonesome, as the area of Texas was known, wasn't a "place for the soft of head or the weak of heart," and maintaining the Casey homestead took about all the energy a person could muster, let alone a young girl. While her mom worked hard at being a lady, it was up to little Lily to keep the place from falling apart. Poor enough for wax paper windows, Lily developed a no-nonsense, eccentric practicality to keep things ticking, setting the pace for the rest of her life.
Following her own sage advice, Lily plays the hand she's been dealt with a straight-forward finesse we just don't see in this day and age. Relying on her smarts and hard work ethic, she makes her way by horseback and rail from big-city Chicago to little Coconino County to wherever the winds settle her. But the West was in her blood, and like her father said back when she first left home, "She'll be back. She'll miss ranch life. She's got horse blood in her veins."
A constant battle against the elements, a rancher's life wasn't an easy one. You read the skies and took what you could get. In good years the earth dished out rewards while the bad ones left you trying to shape up your rock-hard lumps. Yet Lily Casey Smith kept it all in check. Like some sort of Zen cowgirl, she handled life with a rough equanimity that managed to snag the respect of just about everybody she met.
Upon the birth of her daughter Rosemary, Lily becomes right reflective as she shares her thoughts: "I named the baby Rosemary. Roses were my favorite flower, Mary was a good Catholic girl's name, and Rosemary was a darned useful herb. I was hoping the kid would have a practical side. Most babies looked to me like monkeys or Buddhas, but Rosemary was a beautiful thing."
The story of Lily Casey Smith's life holds the potential to be a half broke tale in its own right; a hundred side-stories to her one. However, granddaughter Jeannette knows just when to pull in the reins. Under her canny authorship, Ms. Walls keeps Lily's colorful life story from running wild, deftly picking and choosing from a bounty of choice tales.
Simply put, this novel is a whole lot of fun. With a voice so clear and consistent, you happily find yourself giving in and reading with a cowpoke's twang. Even if you've never had an interest in the Old West and think it's for the birds, prepare to think again. Half Broke Horses is a laugh-out-loud lesson on learning to fall, a story about the human spirit, the courage of adventure, and the choices we make. Jeannette Walls is a true credit to the teachings of Lily Casey Smith: Half Broke Horses stands on sturdy legs of its own.
This review is from the October 21, 2009 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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