HALF BROKE HORSES
BY JEANETTE WALLS
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.
Jeannette Walls was born in Phoenix, Arizona, and grew up in the southwest and Welch, West Virginia. She graduated from Barnard College and was a journalist in New York City for twenty years. Her memoir, The Glass Castle, a triumphant account of overcoming a difficult childhood with her dysfunctional but vibrant family, has been a New York Times bestseller for over three years. A publishing sensation around the world, The Glass Castle has sold more than 2.5 million copies in the U.S. and has been translated into twenty-two languages. Walls is the recipient of numerous honors, including the Christopher Award for helping to "affirm the highest values of the human spirit,” as well as the American Library Association’s Alex Award, and the Books for Better Living Award. The Glass Castle was chosen as Elle magazine's book of the year. Walls lives in rural Virginia with her husband, the writer John Taylor.
In THE GLASS CASTLE, Jeannette Walls wrote an amazingly brave memoir about growing up in her somewhat eccentric family in which she dealt with things that most people would find unimaginable and horrific. And yet, the story was inspiringly written with humor and inconceivable candor, while dealing with things that most of us can’t imagine. I would think not many of us pass a homeless person on the street and then suddenly realize it is your mother.
With the success and popularity of THE GLASS CASTLE, one can only imagine the pressure Jeannette Walls must have felt in telling another story. And yet, Walls dealt with her personal revelations and now seems to transition easily on with HALF BROKE HORSES. Here she takes what she learned from her memoir and has decided that many of the people in her story would make for interesting stories themselves. And so, as a kind of prequel to her memoir THE GLASS CASTLE, she now has written a true-life novel about her grandmother Lily Casey Smith.
Telling the story through Lily’s first person voice, Walls uses what she knows of her grandmother and what she can imagine to weave a story of the kind of woman our country was built on. In that Jeanette Walls was about eight years old when her grandmother died, she takes what she remembers being told by Lily and then interprets it in her own way. She almost becomes Lily as she writes of the spunky, practical, hard working woman who left home to begin teaching at the age of fifteen. Riding a pony all alone some 500 miles, she makes it to her job and one is left to wonder how that is possible when we won’t let a child that age even drive yet.
As you follow Lily through that first job in its one-room school house, to marrying her Jim, we find out what this gal is really made of. She tells Jim before they marry that she has two requests and one is to be partners in whatever they do, and the second request is that although he is a Mormon, she asks him to take only one wife. In a charming response, Jim tells her she is about all the woman he can handle. And from there, Lily’s story continues to a time when she is running a 180,000 acre ranch in Arizona and raising Rose Mary, who readers of course met in THE GLASS CASTLE, and her brother.
The Smiths live though floods and drought, tornadoes and the Great Depression. And as you read more about Jeannette’s mother Rose Mary growing up, you see into her life and background. What amazes me about this book, in somewhat the same way when I have read and taught students many years about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, is just how much these women lived through and saw in their lifetimes. From riding ponies and Conestoga wagons to driving in cars and seeing planes take off. From making their own clothing from a bolt of cloth to hearing the news of Hiroshima, you feel and imagine just what these lives really were like. It is awe inspiring to me all of what women like Lily lived through and Walls presents it in HALF BROKE HORSES in a superlatively written book. Walls writing is amazing as she is able to tell about human emotion in such a clear, concise manner and lead the reader through an engaging and inspiring story created with amazing literary results.
BOOK CLUB AND READING GUIDE:
A wonderful book for book clubs to read, Simon and Schuster provides a wonderful resource for those wishing to discuss HALF BROKE HORSES. The BOOK CLUB AND READING GUIDE starts with this introduction.
"This reading group guide for Half Broke Horses includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book."
You can go HERE to see all the parts of the discussion guide but I thought I would post just the regular discussion questions for they are even good to think about if you are reading the book on your own. There are other questions as well geared toward those people who also read THE GLASS WALL. My own book club read this book and we all enjoyed it (which doesn't usually happen), and we were able to use much of the Reading Guide's questions and suggestions.
1. Jeannette Walls has said that she tried writing this book in the third person but that it didn’t work for her. Do you think you are closer to Lily because you get her story in her own voice? Did you “see” Lily Casey Smith as real? What is your response to the first person voice of the book?
2. When Lily’s father dies, she and Rosemary drive his body from Tucson back to the ranch in West Texas. Rosemary is embarrassed to be seen driving with a corpse and ducks down in the car when they stop at a red light (pg. 198). “Life’s too short, honey,” Lily tells Rosemary, “to worry what other people think of you.” What does Lily’s reaction to this behavior show about her character? Does she give much credence to what other people think of her? What effect do you think her mother’s attitude had on Rosemary?
3. Following Helen’s suicide, Lily says, “When people kill themselves, they think they’re ending the pain, but all they're doing is passing it on to those they leave behind” (pg. 113). Do you agree with this statement?
4. Lily seems willing to sacrifice everything to defend her principles and the rights of others. On more than one occasion, she is fired from a teaching position for refusing to back down from what she believes in. Do you applaud Lily’s moral conviction in these instances? Or did you hope that Lily would learn to compromise?
5. Lily has high expectations for her children, from sending them off to boarding school despite their protests to enforcing strict rules for keeping animals as pets. When Rosemary falls in love with a wild horse and asks her mother if she can keep it, Lily replies, “The last thing we need around here is another half-broke horse” (pg. 190). How might this statement apply to Lily’s children as well? Are Lily’s expectations of her children particularly high or rather a reflection of the times? Why do you think this phrase was chosen as the title of the book?
6. When a group of
7. Discuss Lily’s husband Jim. How does his personality complement her strong nature?
8. While attempting to prevent the ranch from flooding, Lily tells Rosemary, “Do the best you can...That's all anyone can do.” Her instructions are echoed by Jim's declaration: “We did a good job—good as we could” (pg. 152). Why do you think Lily and Jim have both adopted this philosophy? To which other instances in their lives are they likely to have applied this rationale?
9. Lily comes off as tough and resilient, but there are moments in this book of vast heartbreak, where you see her façade crack. How does the author handle the death of Lily’s friend in
10. Walls calls Half Broke Horses a “true life novel.” In her author’s note, she explains why. Do you agree with this label? What do you think of the “true life” genre?
11. “Helen’s beauty, as far as I was concerned, had been a curse, and I resolved that I would never tell Rosemary she was beautiful” (pg. 119). Examine Lily’s relationship with her daughter, Rosemary, and, in The Glass Castle, Rosemary’s relationship with Jeannette. How does each generation try to compensate for the one before? How does each mother try to avoid the mistakes or pain imposed upon her by her own mother?
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