Pros: Fascinating story with a shrewd and tough narrator.
Cons: The reader should probably take it with a few grains of salt.
Half Broke Horses is the story of Jeanette Walls' maternal grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, who grew up on a ranch in Texas. The title refers to incompletely trained horses that "would just barely accept a saddle." According to the book, such horses tend to be tough and intelligent, though. Walls also sometimes use the phrase to describe people who are rough around the edges.
Walls describes her book as a "true life novel." Her subject died when Walls was eight, so Walls herself has only a few memories of her. She did, however, grow up hearing stories about Lily Smith from her mother. In other words, Walls based a lot of her book on oral history, and she admits as much. In her author's note at the end, Wells describes her book as a "retelling of stories handed down by my family." To her credit, Walls does find and use books to try to verify some of the family's stories--only to find they sometimes contradicted said stories. Given that, the reader might want to take Half Broke Horses with a few grains of salt.
Lily Casey Smith was born in 1901 and was the eldest of three children. At that time, the West was still quite Wild. Lily was born in a dugout, a big hole dug in the side of a riverbank. Dugouts were common back then, because there were virtually no trees. At least, there weren't enough trees to be used for building log cabins. (One of their neighbors did have a log cabin, and he had to have the timber imported all the way from New Mexico.)
Between a disabled father and an impractical mother, Lily had to grow up fast. She was helping her father train horses when she was six years old. She also tutored her younger siblings. (Her father homeschooled her until she was thirteen, and then sent her to a Catholic boarding school.) Lily became an itinerant teacher when she was fifteen and taught at a number of small frontier towns until the end of World War I. After World War I, Lily decided to try life in the big city and went to Chicago-- only to discover that nobody there would hire a teacher who didn't have a high school diploma, experienced or otherwise. She therefore divided her time between working as a maid and going to high school.
The book covers roughly half a century, as it starts when the nine-year-old Lily and her siblings survive a flood and ends with the birth of her granddaughter, Jeannette. Lily herself is the narrator, as Walls hoped to "capture her voice." Frankly, I find this more questionable than the "true life novel" business, since Lily died when Walls was still very young. Walls claims to remember Lily's voice and manner of talking, but I wonder. Some of the expressions Walls uses, like "crumb bum," sometimes sound a bit forced, but she does succeed in portraying her grandmother as a tough, hard-headed, independent woman who had little patience for conventional attitudes. Her stint as a maid had soured her on housework, so she did as little of that as possible. She went to college and even learned to fly a plane, in a time and place where women did not do either.
To her credit, Walls does not shy away from the fact that Lily made mistakes. During her stay in Chicago, she married a salesman-- only to discover he was a con artist married to another woman. She had an assertive and confrontational personality and did not suffer fools or sexists gladly-- and this attitude led to her getting fired a number of times. Her relationship with her daughter Rosemary could best be described as "difficult." Given her temperament, Lily was probably not an easy person to live or work with, but she is certainly an interesting one to read about.