Sunday, January 31, 2010

HALF BROKE HORSES by Jeannette Walls

Another blogger recently wrote a review on Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls, and I stood up at attention. A couple of years before I had read another book by Walls, The Glass Castle, and couldn't put it down. I remember taking my mother to an Arabian horse show in Santa Barbara, and she was getting pissy with me because I was so enthralled with reading The Glass Castle that I wasn't being very good company. The humor and irony in the fact that I was ignoring my own mother while reading that book is that The Glass Castle is about a highly dysfunctional family. I did throw a few tidbits my mother's way by reading some of the more astonishing stories out loud, and was sure to lend the book to her once I was done. I knew she'd appreciate the novel, as our own family is far from perfect. We have quite a few eccentrics and wayward souls hanging from our family tree too.

Half Broke Horses interested me not just because it was written by Jeannette Walls, but also because it had the word "horses" in the title. It is essentially the life story as passed down through word-of-mouth of Jeannnette's grandmother Lily Casey Smith, a horse breaking rancher, Chicago flapper, jilted lover, teacher notorious for getting fired from the worst jobs that no one wanted, poker-playing bootlegger, barn-storming pilot, wife and mother. Her journey takes us through New Mexico, Texas, Illinois and Arizona, and is written from the point-of-view of Lily, thus making it a true-life novel as opposed to a biography or memoir.

Lily is a truly likable person, spirited, outspoken, strong, and a survivor. It was interesting having Half Broke Horses follow The Glass Castle in publication, as it gives us a peek into the past when we already know the future of this family. We can see how Lily openly discourages Jeannette's parents from getting married, and for those of us who read The Glass Castle first, well... we know what a disaster that turned out to be.

I giggled over how Lily thought automobiles were a nuisance when they first came on the scene, scaring her horses as she rode them down the roads. She was even struck by a careless driver while crossing a city street, but eventually came to love racing around in cars herself. She also developed a desire to fly planes. I appreciated that she travelled weeks on horseback to reach a new job, but wondered how she could stand the smell of herself, going that long without bathing.

The level of poverty could be deceiving, as wealth seemed to be measured by this family based on how much open space they had, something I heartily agree with. Lily's family loved ranching, and strove to return to it even when so much was working against them. They experiemented with the city life, but preferred wide open spaces where they could wrangle cattle.

Lily's husband Jim became known as "The Parachuting Cowboy" when he parachuted out of planes during an uncharacteristic deep freeze in Arizona to help all these newcomers who came out west to ranch, but didn't know the first thing about raising cattle in the snow. He had to teach them to break the ice so the cattle could drink, and toss out flakes of hay shipped in from elsewhere since there was nothing edible on the ground.

The book carries a running theme regarding what is real and what is fake. Lily is quite proud of fake things, everything from her false teeth to the fake string of pearls she buys her daughter to give her the air of having a little class. Horse lovers will enjoy the scene in which Lily pretends to be a dim-wit about horses and allows a couple of pranksters to talk her into riding a wild bronc. She shocks them and instantly earns their respect with her ability to get control of that horse in no time.

I enjoyed the historic value of the book as well. Starting at the age of 15, without having completed her own education, Lily was often hired into teaching positions at one-room schoolhouses out in the middle of nowhere by Superintendent Grady Gammage. I found this interesting, as my daughter had a dorm room right across the street from Gammage Auditorium at Arizona State University last year. I'm sure this man had no idea he would someday have a building that is shaped like a cake named after him.

I recommend this book for a fast read. It was the first book I read on my new Amazon Kindle, which I will review in my next post. Stay tuned.

12 comments:

Breathe said...

Sounds like a great book - I love stories of dysfunctional families, since I'm in one myself.

Are there any non-dysfunctional families?

I'm looking forward to hearing your review of the kindle too.

Grey Horse Matters said...

Thanks for the review. I was considering buying this book and now I think I will. By the way I love my Kindle and read more now that I ever did before. I take it with me everywhere. Enjoy yours.

p.s. my daughter went to ASU also. Nice school.

Fantastyk Voyager said...

It sounds interesting. Thanks for the review. I'm also interested in the Glass Castle now.
How do you like your Kindle?

TCavanaugh said...

Sounds very interesting...I may have to find both of those books.

Mikey said...

It does sound good! I'm very excited to hear what you have to say about the Kindle too. I'm eyeballing them, but have yet to buy...

photogchic said...

Always looking for a good read...have to get the page turner version...still don't have a Kindle. Maybe the IPad:)

Katharine Swan said...

Both books sound good! What order do you think it is better to read them in, or do you think it would matter?

Leah Fry said...

Thanks for the review. And whose family isn't dysfunctional?

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

Katharine - I'd definitely read "The Glass Castle" first. The ending of "Half Broke Horses" is more significant if you read it in that order.

fernvalley01 said...

Dysfunctional families are the norm I think. A friend of mine says of her family "we put the fun in dysfunctional" Sounds like a good read though

Katharine Swan said...

Okay, thanks, NM!

Bailey said...

Half Broke Horses was the first book I read on my Kindle as well. I had never read anything by Walls, and was just attracted by the title. I really enjoyed it - and I love my kindle too. I think the best part of the Kindle is the fact that the screen is not backlit, so does not tire your eye like reading from a computer screen.