Summary and book reviews of Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls

Half Broke Horses

A True-Life Novel

by Jeannette Walls

Half Broke Horses
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2009, 288 pages
    Sep 2010, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Megan Shaffer

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Book Summary

Jeannette Walls's memoir The Glass Castle was "nothing short of spectacular" (Entertainment Weekly). Now, in Half Broke Horses, she brings us the story of her grandmother, told in a first-person voice that is authentic, irresistible, and triumphant.

"Those old cows knew trouble was coming before we did." So begins the story of Lily Casey Smith, Jeannette Walls's no nonsense, resourceful, 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, 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 Jim, she 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. Rosemary Smith Walls always told Jeannette that she was like her grandmother, and in this true-life novel, Jeannette Walls channels that kindred spirit. 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. Destined to become a classic, it will transfix audiences everywhere.

Half Broke Horses

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, ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
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 ...
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BookBrowse Review


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.   (Reviewed by Megan Shaffer).

Full Review Members Only (556 words).

Media Reviews

USA Today - Craig Wilson

Half Broke Horses [is] the tale of yet another free-spirited wisecracking relative, her maternal grandmother, Lily Casey Smith. Think a rifle-toting, horse-breaking Annie Oakley in a biplane.

The New York Times - Janet Maslin

...she has managed to make her second book almost as inviting as her first, even though its upright heroine is never as startling as Ms. Walls's parents were

The New York Times Book Review - Liesl Schillinger

Wilder's stories have acquired such mythic power…that it can be easy to forget how many American families shared similar histories, each with their own touchstones of calamity, endurance and hard-won reward. With convincing, unprettified narration, Walls weaves her own ancestor into this collective rough-and-tumble heritage.

Entertainment Weekly elegant act of literary transubstantiation... a narrative as bold and self-assured as a cowboy's lasso skills.

Publishers Weekly

Lily never gets far from hardscrabble drudgery in several states ... but hers is one of those heartwarming stories about indomitable women that will always find an audience.

Library Journal

Told in a natural, offhand voice that is utterly enthralling, this is essential reading for anyone who loves good fiction—or any work about the American West.

Kirkus Reviews

To the end Lily is one tough bird. Like her grandmother, Walls knows how to tell a story with love and grit.

Reader Reviews


And the winner is.......
Jeannette Walls writes that she honestly has to call her story a novel. She writes about her grandmother's life in the first person, recalling her distinctive voice. After her family interviews she had to use her imagination to write the details of ...   Read More

Dene McIntosh

Just Good Horse Sense
Love the book the first time I read it and the second time, I made notes for my book club review. Also, have recommended it to many of my friends who report that they thoroughly enjoyed it. The book is full of life's lessons that can be applied to ...   Read More


What a ride!
I haven't even finished this book yet, but I can write the review already. I've loved every page. This would actually make a great movie, in the "O Brother" genre. I've so much enjoyed her adventures on horseback and in the hearse. I ...   Read More


Half Broke Horses
I could not put this book down. It was an incredible story of a very tenacious, independent and goal oriented woman at a time when woman were expected to be submissive to a man's ambition only. I loved Lily's toughness when it came to drawing the ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

S&H Green Stamps
Chances are if you’re under 40 you might not remember S&H Green Stamps, but since I’m one step over that hill, I clearly remember licking those sticky little stamps and dreaming of all the possibilities they held as I carefully pasted them onto the enticing matching rectangles. For those of you who can recall pressing those little postage stamp sized tokens into their respective booklets, you’ll know just what Lily Casey Smith was talking about when she used those very same stamps to purchase a few choice items to furnish her home.

S&H stands for Sperry & Hutchinson, the stamp distributor who began offering Green Stamps back in 1896. Developed for retailers to distribute as a bonus for patronizing their ...

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