Friday, November 26, 2010

Review: Half Broke Horses

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.


Anonymous said...

I've heard great things about her previous work so I'm a little bit sad that this fell a little bit flat. I'm glad there was good writing even if the characters weren't very likable.

bermudaonion said...

The Glass Castle would be a hard act to follow, so I think we all had high hopes for this one. After your review, I'll go in with lower expectations.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I've intentionally NOT picked up this book because I'd heard it was just nowhere near The Glass Castle. I think perhaps the appeal of Castle is that Walls is just so darned lovable and innocent and resiliant, despite her horrible parents. If Walls had been a brat, I probably would have felt different. I am totally amazed this woman came out normal at the end.

Beth F said...

Reviews have been all over the place with this one. I saved the ARC I got at BEA09, but I haven't felt compelled to pick it up.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Interesting response. I think for me too the main character just has to be likeable!

Amused said...

Oh man I really want to read this so I'll keep your comments in mind when I do so!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Sorry u did not love this one.

I liked it a lot. I also loved Glass Castle, and to me this was the same caliber of writing, just a very different story.

Alyce said...

I've been reading a lot of similar reviews lately. People who loved The Glass Castle seem to just like Half Broke Horses. I've only read The Glass Castle and haven't made my mind up about reading this one yet.

Anonymous said...

I may be the only person around who read this book without reading The Glass Castle. Everyone else in my book club did read it and was anxious to read this "prequel".

Perhaps if I had read Castle I would be more sympathetic to the over-the-top "folksy" writing style but, frankly, I couldn't get beyond it. Way too many collquialisms like "Buster could charm the sage off the brush."

Way too much obvious effort put into portraying Lily as a "true grit" character. Surely she felt things more deeply than came across in this novel, but Walls seems hell bent to show her as a gosh darn country girl with a plucky little spirit. I just couldn't believe that a woman who had survived all that Lily survived could be so superficial.

Although I thought that the details of Lily's life in Arizona in the early 1900s were fascinating, I couldn't get beyond the writing to really care.