Summary: 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 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 readers everywhere. -- Scribner
I mentioned a few weeks ago that my book club read HALF BROKE HORSES: A TRUE-LIFE NOVEL by Jeannette Walls. I had been excited to read this story ever since I saw Ms. Walls speak at the 2009 BEA Authors' Breakfast. I enjoyed her memoir GLASS CASTLES a great deal and I was very interested to see if I would appreciate HALF BROKE HORSES as much. Unfortunately, it didn't quite live up to my expectations.
That's not to say that I didn't like HALF BROKE HORSES because I did find quite a few things about this book that I enjoyed. I'm just saying that I didn't love it -- and I think everyone in my book club kind of agreed. The story was interesting and I thought the character of Lily, Ms. Walls' grandmother, was very well developed. It's just that I didn't find myself rushing back to read this book once I set it down.
I can't exactly put my finger on why I feel this way about the story, but I have a feeling that it's because I had some issues with Lily. I didn't feel like she was a very likable character and I couldn't really relate to her very much. It wasn't that I always felt that way about her though. In fact, for about the first third of the book, my heart went out to her and I found her courage to be extremely admirable. However, throughout the story, she faced so many disappointments and setbacks that she was forced to develop a pretty rough exterior. Because of these events, Lily developed some very strong convictions and stood by them despite the cost. I sometimes questioned whether she shouldn't have bitten her tongue a few times to save herself, but that wasn't in being with Lily's character. I did respect Lily for the life she led and the things she accomplished. I'm just saying that I didn't feel as much compassion towards her as I would have expected.
I found it extremely interesting that the women in my book club were all over the place with their feelings about Lily. One of my friends absolutely despised Lily (and especially her mothering skills) while another one respected her and thought they had a lot in common. Most of us were somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. What I will say about HALF BROKE HORSES is that it did provide my group with many topics for discussion. We could have talked about Lily for hours, but we eventually had to agree to disagree.
One thing that did stand out for me about this novel is Ms. Wells' writing. As was the case with GLASS CASTLE, I appreciated how Ms. Wells' told this story. She decided to tell Lily's story in Lily's own words, and I think that actually was a great decision. Despite not being able to really relate to Lily, I think I got a better understanding of her character by reading her private thoughts. In fact, I was able to get insight into some of her actions that I definitely would not have been able to understand otherwise.
I do recommend HALF BROKE HORSES as a good read for book clubs. In addition to discussion Lily's personality and behavior, there are many other themes to discuss as evident in this reading guide. Some of the discussion points that your group might want to explore include perseverance, grief, loss, convictions, parent/child relationships, motherhood, mental illness, and redemption. My group also found ourselves discussing Ms. Walls' memoir GLASS CASTLE in tandem with HALF BROKE HORSES -- there are some questions in the reading guide which addresses both books. I found it extremely interesting to discuss Rosemary's (Lily's daughter and Ms. Walls' mother) behavior and to see if it tied back to her upbringing.
I didn't love HALF BROKE HORSES like I had hoped, but it is definitely a worthwhile read. I especially appreciated it after reading GLASS CASTLE, and I think fans of that book will be interested in Lily.
I received an ARC of this book at the 2009 BEA.