Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls

Second books can be terrifying for the writer and a disappointment for the reader. The author usually cannot devote to a second book the long years of revising and polishing that went into selling the first book. And if that first book was a huge success, as was Walls's The Glass Castle, then the author carries the burden of expectations and is hampered by the fear of not being able to live up to them. A memoir of her childhood, The Glass Castle was one of the very best of all the many memoirs I read that year. In fascinated horror I read on as Walls was tossed here and there at the whim of her feckless (if fun) parents, certainly neglected by today's standards, often starved enough to steal food from the school trashcans, but still fondly appreciative of her father's quirky ideas.

Half Broke Horses, Walls's second book, is a fictional treatment of her grandmother's life, based on family stories and supplemental research. Growing up on ranches in Texas and New Mexico during the Dust Bowl years, Lily endured hardships that she perceived as privileges, such as living in a mud house that was cool in summer and warm in winter, though sometimes unstable in the rare heavy rains. As the oldest of three, she acted as her father's best hand, breaking the horses he then trained as carriage horses, gelding the male horses, selling eggs in town, and bargaining with the shopkeepers.

Walls does an excellent job of capturing the voice of this idiosyncratic woman and maintaining it throughout the book. While the book lacks the intensity of the earlier memoir, I cherished the opportunity to spend time with the practical and philosophic Lily. She takes every setback as a lesson to be learned and is harder on herself than anyone.

An all-too-brief year at boarding school instills in her a lifelong love of learning, which she pursues in fits and starts, whenever time and money can be spared from ranch life. Tough as she is, there is no doubt from her actions how much she loves her two children, Rosemary (who would be Jeannette’s mother) and Little Jim. I also appreciated the chance to learn more about Rosemary’s early life, which puts some of her later, seemingly bizarre parental behavior into some kind of context.

In spite of her lack of credentials, Lily works as a teacher when she can, though she continually gets into trouble with the authorities for teaching children what she thinks they should know. She also loves flying, though she can rarely afford the lessons, and enjoys watching the westerns that her husband, Big Jim, despises. While agreeing that the cowboys are unrealistic with their spotless ten-gallon hats and spirited sing-songs around the campfire after a long day on the trail, she argues that no one would want to see stories of real cowboys.

Maybe not in the movies, but I sure enjoyed these stories of real life in the West. Lily embodies not only the independence we associate with the West, living her life in a way that is orthogonal to American society, but also the can-do spirit and work ethic necessary to survive in a place where you only have yourself to rely on. Lily is the kind of woman I always wanted to be and I’m tremendously grateful for this chance to get to know her.

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