Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel is “a true-life novel,” the life story of Lily Casey Smith, writer Jeannette Walls‘s grandmother. It begins in Texas during Lily’s childhood before World War I and ends with the birth of Jeannette Walls. If Walls intended to write a Great American Novel, she succeeded.
Half Broke Horses is honest and vibrant. The short chapters feature vivid memories of events big and small in Lily’s life, and her personality bursts through every word, such that even people who don’t enjoy reading might like this book. It’s not a thriller, and it’s not mystery, and there’s no big question to keep readers on the edge of their seats, but the feeling of being transported to another time and place with a fearless leader as your guide is so strong that sitting in a chair with this book seems like something that should count as a life experience.
Two of the running metaphors were meaningful to me: Lily Casey Smith thinks its important to know how to take a fall, but she is resolute in her desire to learn from her mistakes. As a fellow lifelong equestrian, the truth of the metaphor (falling off of a horse with the least amount of damage as an approach to life) is powerful: You have to fight like hell not to fall off, but once you hit the point of no return, you have to relax your body. Hitting the ground tensed up and in denial, or worse–trying to break your fall with your limbs–will only get you hurt. Lily lives her life in this way, learning from her mistakes and doing everything in her power to prevent catastrophes, but she is brave and uncomplaining when life throws her to the ground.
She spends her ranching life recognizing that she cannot change the weather and instead tries to work with nature. She built dams to protect her ranch from flash floods and to provide water to her cattle, but she has a far more difficult time understanding that she cannot change the nature of people. A schoolteacher at heart, she teaches her children lessons, trying to mold them into the people she wants them to be, instead of trying to work with their natures to help them be the people that they are without destroying themselves. Her great challenge of the last half of the book is in learning to surrender to her daughter’s nature.
On a personal note, this novel was bittersweet for me. Walls’s rendition of her grandmother’s life brims with love, and it made me miss my own grandmother. I found myself wishing that she had lived six months longer to see this book’s publication. She would have found Lily Casey Smith to be a kindred spirit. I wish I could lend this book to her and listen to her opinion of it afterward.