Sunday, July 3, 2011

"Half Broke Horses"

"Half Broke Horses" by Jeannette Walls
Published in 2009
My rating: 5 out of 5

To steal a phrase from the book, "it really fried my bacon" when I was forced, under threat of a 10 cent fine, to return this book to the library before finishing it a couple weeks ago. I had to put it on hold at the library and I finally got it back on Wednesday. Then I quickly devoured the last 100 pages, which were as fascinating and well-written as the first chunk I read. The author, Jeannette Walls, describes the book as a "true life novel," which is a perfectly apt description. The book is basically a biography of her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, with Walls using her imagination to fill in the blanks between family stories.

The book opens when, at 10, Lily saves her little brother and sister from a flash flood on the family ranch in west Texas. This event sets the stage for the reader in terms of Lily's personality. At 10, she's already stubborn, tenacious, practical, sassy and full of an innate zest for life, even when things don't go anywhere near to plan. These traits are only magnified as Lily goes through many, many hard times -- and lots of good ones, too -- as a daughter, wife, mother, teacher, horse trainer, moonshine distributor, and all the other myriad roles Lily takes on in her incredible life.

Lily possesses a bevy of admirable qualities. Seldom do Lily's feathers get ruffled no matter how tough a situation life throws at her. She rarely complains; instead, she just buckles down and does what needs to be done. At one point in the book, Lily is finally attaining her lifelong goal of a college degree -- in just two years -- by way of spending 18 hours a day going to class and studying. "I loved my time at university and felt happier than I had a right to be," Lily's character says in the novel. "Some of the other students were astonished at my workload, but I felt like a lady of leisure. Instead of doing ranch chores, tending sick cattle, hauling schoolkids far and wide, moping the school floor, and coping with belligerent parents, I was learning about the world and improving my mind. I had no obligations to anyone by myself, and everything in my life was under my control."

As we follow Lily on her journey through the hard country of the Southwest -- and brief forrays into city life in Chicago and, much later, Phoenix -- we see that she is nearly unflappable. Even the toughest trials don't get her down for long. Though Lily's personality is enviable in many respects, she is not without her flaws. Her daughter, Rosemary (the author's mother), just doesn't turn out the way Lily had hoped, and it's a constant thorn in her side. "I feel like I failed," she tells her husband toward the end of the book after Rosemary announces she's going to marry her boyfriend Rex, a fun-loving, carefree, live-on-the-edge WWII pilot.

I love how Walls wrote the novel in first person, from Lily's perspective and in her voice. The text is so conversational that I felt like Lily was sitting in front of me, reliving the stories of her life. And that life included many interesting lessons learned, thought-provoking points of view, and cute -- but oh-so-true -- little sayings. My favorite Lilyism came at the point in the novel when Lily gets into politics. She boasts that she got all 13 families in their village of Horse Mesa registered to vote, and while handing out voter registration cards tells people, "Anyone who thinks he's too small to make a difference has never been bit by a mosquito."

I thought "Half Broke Horses" was a fabulous novel, and I loved knowing that it was based in fact. Maybe every single event didn't happen just as Walls described it, but I have a strong feeling that the novel perfectly captured the essence of the real Lily Casey Smith.

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