HALF BROKE HORSES,
by Jeannette Walls. Scribner, 272 pp., $26.
Reading Jeannette Walls' new book, billed as a "true-life novel, is a bit like sitting on the front porch with your grandma as she regales you with colorful tales about her life.
Of course, not everyone's grandmother managed a horse ranch, married a bigamist, ran bootleg liquor and flew airplanes.
Lily Casey Smith did all that and more. She's the plain-spoken narrator of "Half Broke Horses," which draws on stories Walls' mother, Rose Mary, told the author about her own mother. Readers of "The Glass Castle," Walls' bestselling 2005 memoir, will remember Rose Mary; she and her husband, Rex, were full of wild dreams but little talent for responsible parenting. While Jeannette was pulling herself out of poverty as a successful journalist, Rose Mary happily squatted in an abandoned Manhattan building, making paintings and combing through Dumpsters.
Walls' grandmother was a character, too, though of a very different variety. Born in a West Texas dugout in 1901, Lily Casey was a tough, strong-willed soul shaped by a frontier childhood followed hard by the Great Depression. The book opens with a flash flood that young Lily and her siblings barely survive by clinging to a tree; she labors on her father's horse ranch, later teaches school in New Mexico and gets hitched to a salesman in big-city Chicago. (The "crumb bum" turns out to have another family.) Eventually, Lily settles down with dependable "Big Jim" Smith to raise a family on an Arizona cattle ranch.
Walls has perfectly captured the voice of this no-nonsense woman, and the episodic narrative is full of adventure and wonderful period detail. But Lily has limitations as the narrator of her life; she's full of gumption but not much given to introspection. The novel gallops past her marital woes, her sister's suicide and her father's death at breakneck speed: "Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again" might be Lily's credo. It feels somehow reminiscent of young adult literature (Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books come to mind).
I read "Half Broke Horses" as a celebration of storytelling and true grit, and as such it's a pure pleasure. And for the many fans of "The Glass Castle," the book widens our understanding of Jeannette Walls' remarkable clan. I hope there are more family stories to come.