Jeannette Walls struck gold when she published her personal memoir, "The Glass Castle, a few years back. Her own unusual upbringing touched a spot in people's hearts and minds. I highly recommend the book for schools especially for teens. When you look at Jeannette Walls, you see a sophisticated and intelligent woman who looked like she came out of private boarding schools. The reality is that Jeannette came from poverty where her parents' roaming lifestyle led to them even being homeless on the streets.
In this book, Jeannette wants to write about her mother, Rosemary Smith Walls, but ends up writing about her mother's mother, Lily Casey Smith, who herself was quite a character. Her maternal grandmother was born in 1901 in the Southwest. Like her descendents such as Jeannette and Rosemary, she defied conventional living. She became a school teacher during World War I in Arizona and living in Chicago where she worked as a servant and went to school.
Jeannette writes lovingly about her grandmother and brings her character to life. Lily's life was no picnic and her early years on the ranch with her book-smart father, mother, and siblings-Buster and Helen provide an interesting portrait of life in the American Southwest before World War I.
It's interesting since Jeannette Walls last surprised us with her memoirs to note that she is no longer a social or gossip columnist in New York City's Upper West Side. She and her husband have traded their city lives for a country life in Northern Virginia complete with their own set of beloved horses.
This is not as good as her previous book, "The Glass Castles," which I could not put down. This book is a "true-life novel" based on Walls' grandmother, her mother's mother. And it is a wonderful book. Lily Casey Smith was no lily-livered woman who fainted at the slightest urge (Lily's mom did do that on occasion). Lily was the oldest child in her family and by the age of 6 she was helping her father break in horses, a no easy feat for a child, let alone a grown man. Lily was a woman in every sense of the word ... practical, no-nonsense, hard-working and honest. Even though Walls is writing a novel based on her grandmother's life, Walls' words bring the woman to life in every word of the page.
This is a different writing style from Walls' memoir, where it was a thoughtful prose designed to get the reader to read more into a childhood that was hard and filled with parents who couldn't stay put in one place nor could they raise their children. The children raised themselves. In this book, Lily was written to be a tough woman who had faced desperate times ... such as hiding bootleg liquor underneath her son's crib. She did what she could to make ends meet. Even her marriage to Big Jim was practical though I sense through Walls' writing that there was love and mutual respect between the two. Lily is the example of feminism in its best ... she pulled no punches into doing anything. She didn't shy away from speaking her mind even though it did cost her job twice.
Walls has a talent where people and their distant stories just come to life. For awhile there, I was so interested in this novel that I kept forgetting that parts of it is made up since Walls admitted that she never talked with her grandmother so she was filling in the blanks. Lily Casey Smith comes alive in this book and what a wonderful tribute to a woman who is part of Jeannette Walls' heritage. What a rich heritage that is too.
on October 23, 2009
Jeannette Walls new book "Half Broke Horses" is an enthralling, hard to put down book, written by a brilliant writer. But the book suffers from that most modern of flaws, an inability and actually even a positive embargo on emotions and consequent moral judgments or shadings.
"Half Broke Horses" with Lily, its heroine, a real life pioneer woman, could be the next "I Remember Mama" or "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn". But I'm sure Walls and all other modern writers would rather die than be compared to either of those, which would surely be regarded by modern critics as overly sentimental.
So, what we're left with is a book that is a great yarn, with fascinating details about the American Southwest at the turn of the century, told by an immensely talented and skilled writer, that lacks one thing: the pulse of human feeling. There's plenty of sweat, and that makes the characters very admirable, but no blood, and that makes them a little dry and depressing. Events that would scar any normal human heart happen without even drawing a drop of blood or tears or sighs.
And yet the events of her life show that Lily did many things that required courage, strength, love, and dedication, and that heartbreak touched her life more than once. But not only does the author not dwell upon Lily's feelings and the emotions that must have kept her going or threatened to sink her, they are never mentioned. The result is the book's tone becomes like listening to someone suffering from low level depression drone on about their life. Arid, dry, a downer.
The author seems to admire Lily's lack of feeling, as if the best human beings can aspire to is to ignore their emotions. And that may be how Lily got through her daunting and difficult life. But since her emotional distance from herself and others may have contributed to her troubles, it also distances us from her story, which starts to seem like a long series of half truths, with many of the good parts, the meaty parts left out.
There are hints that Lily's Irish father has a contentious nature and is always ready to fly off the handle and do something stupid, inconsiderate or violent. And the way Lily keeps getting fired may be from a similar disposition. A temper like that certainly is indicative of some passion in her makeup. But, she acknowledges it only in regards to minor incidents in her life.
But, even hampered by the modern critical sensibility, which cannot seem to stomach the sturm and drang of real life, Walls' writing is so magnificent, she's such a natural storyteller that you forgive her everything.
My advice is don't miss this book. You'll enjoy it despite it's drawbacks.
Jeannette Walls captivated me with her own life story in her first book, The Glass Castle. In Half Broke Horses, she tells her maternal grandmother's tale, from a first person perspective. This book is equally riveting. The story opens with a desperate urgency as a flash flood threatens to drown young Lily and her siblings. Lily's quick thinking saves them, and as they wade home the next day, the children's mother declares that God has saved them because she has been on her knees praying all night. She insists that the exhausted kids get down on there knees and pray.
Lily has a strong voice right from the beginning: "There weren't no guardian angel, Dad," I said. I started explaining how I'd gotten us to the cottonwood tree in time, figuring out how to switch places when our arms got tired and keeping Buster and Helen awake through the long night by quizzing them.
Dad squeezed my shoulder, "Well, darling, maybe the angel was you."
Lily grows up with the idea that she can do anything she makes up her mind to do. She is fearless and her spunk and quick mind get her out of plenty of scrapes. Her unconventional behavior must have really stood out in her time.
As a young woman, Lily works briefly as a maid to wealthy city folk. But she doesn't let domestic chores weigh her down at her own home. When Lily and her husband are employed running a ranch, she cooks nothing but beans and steak. The hands and the family wore shirts backward and inside out before washing them.
"Levi's we didn't wash at all. They shrank too much, and it weakened the threads. So we wore them and wore them until they were shiny with mud, manure, tallow, cattle slobber, bacon fat, axle grease, and hoof oil, and them we wore them some more. Eventually, the Levi's reached a point of grime saturation where they couldn't get any dirtier, where they had the feel of oilskin and had become not just waterproof but briar-proof, and that was when you knew you had really broken them in. When Levi's reached that degree of conditioning, they were sort of like smoke-cured ham or aged bourbon, and you couldn't pay a cowboy to let you wash his."
The writing is consistent and smooth, so that one hardly thinks about the words and just "lives" through them alongside Lily and her adventures. Not exactly an angel, Lily sells moonshine during prohibition. She works so hard at all she does that a double courseload at college feels like a vacation.
She can break a horse, read the weather, teach school, drive a car, and fly a plane. Her story is amazing, simultaneously inspiring and sad. Those who enjoyed A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or Angela's Ashes will love Half Broke Horses.
on October 8, 2010
I picked up this book because I like Horse Stories...Hah!! Not a horse story--not like that at all...What I had in my hands was one of the best books I have read this year. There is something to be said about true stories...especially when you can't put down someone else's life. Jeannette Walls does a good job opening the door to her family's life. Each chapter is short...like reading a brief remembrance. The half-broke horse is in us all...sure her grandmother could break half-broke broncs...but aren't WE all half broke horses? This book is easily one great read about a family all the way up until Rose Mary gets married to Rex. Lily Casey Smith led one of the fullest lives I have ever read about...through floods, tornadoes and the great depression...from Texas into Arizona...From what a woman can and cannot do..she is a hero of unprecedented stamina...I can't part with this book. It is on my bookshelf to come back to over and over again..Jeannette Walls writes in a way that when I came away from this book I felt as if I knew these people all along..When you think you have it bad...crack open this book and read how hard people had it through the depression, how much they lost and how they always started over again. This book gives true meaning to the stamina of the American people.
I read Jeannette Walls' first book, "The Glass Castle," and it blew me away. When the opportunity arose to read this, her second book, I was thrilled. In "Half Broke Horses," Ms. Walls focuses on her maternal grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, and her life from birth until the time of Ms. Walls' birth.
I'd remembered the character of Lily Smith from "The Glass Castle," and what a strong woman she seemed to be. This book proves that impression. In the words of Jeannette Walls - Lily Casey Smith was "some character!" Born in a dirt "dug out" in west Texas, raised on ranches in Texas and New Mexico, an itinerant school teacher at the age of 15 in rural Arizona - and that's just the beginning. This was a woman of character, strength, dignity, values, and integrity. This is a woman I would have liked to have met.
I enjoyed the job Ms. Walls did with this work. I feel she did her research, and was sensitive and fair with her presentation. I think I even enjoyed this work more than "The Glass Castle," but that might be because her previous book had far more depressing material than this one.
I came away from this book feeling really good - I enjoyed my time with Lily Casey Smith. I felt that she had imparted some things to me that would allow me to pause and consider life in a different way. I think she would like that. And I feel Jeannette Walls did her grandmother proud.
As a life long fan of Little House on the Prairie I couldn't pass up the opportunity to read a book compared to Little House. The book is everything it promises. I couldn't put it down and had to read it a second time because I enjoyed it so much. I found myself sympathizing with Lily at times and at others laughing out loud at some of her antics and the way she handled situations.
Some readers might find some of Lily's recounts in this book hard to believe. I wasn't alive during the Great Depression but was raised by parents and family members that lived during that era. I've heard many stories told over and over by these relatives of survival, making the best of bad situations and doing with what you had. I so enjoyed listening to my relatives tell their stories and found Jeanette Wall's book enthralling and similar in many ways.
If you are a Little House Fan I would highly recommend this book. I only wish I had read Jeanette Wall's first book The Glass Castle prior to reading this book but I've now ordered it and can't wait to read it.
on April 6, 2011
The protagonist in this book is Lily. Apparently Lily has "gumption" and "moxie." I know this because she tells me she has gumption and moxie. Oh, and she likes to fly airplanes, sell bootleg whiskey, and play poker with the boys. Lily is actually the author's grandmother. The author, Jeanette Walls, fashioned this "true life novel" from her own memories of Lily, her mother's recollections, and actual documentation. But, Lily feels cartoonish to me, like Amy Adams' portrayal of Amelia Earhart in the Night at the Museum movie sequel. What I noticed though, was how Lily treated her children. The "tough as nails," "tough it out," "don't let anyone see you cry" approach apparently did not work out as well as Lily hoped. Lily's daughter, Rosemary, became a homeless artist with a mental condition. Read the far superior book, The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls to see Rosemary, a true very broke horse indeed.
I'm in the minority again but I'm sharing my opinion anyway. I wasn't overly impressed with Jeannette Wall's first book 'The Glass Castle' and I have similar feelings about this book as well. It's supposed to be novel about her grandmother but it felt more like an outline that the actual thing to me. This is a compilation of interesting stories about her grandparents but there's little if any character development. I liked a lot of the stories but there wasn't enough meat for me to sink my teeth into in any of them and I know they won't last in my memory. I thought it was interesting to see Jeannette Walls' parents through her grandmothers eyes. And if you've read 'The Glass Castle' you know where they ended up was very much so where her grandmother thought they were headed.
This is our book club selection for this month and we start our discussions with trivia questions from the book, this is a great book for trivia questions. But there's not a lot to praise beyond that. The writing is not good, it's very simple and the reading level is probably around a fifth or sixth grade level. The voice Walls' gives her grandmother is uninteresting and inconsistent. As I mentioned before there's nearly no character development, which is sad because I think her grandfather was probably a really amazing man. Her grandmother was quite a character, that comes through very clearly. I can see that this is a loving tribute to the memory of her grandparents and viewed as that it is a success but as stranger to the people in this book I needed more than what was offered in order to feel any satisfaction in reading about them.
on October 29, 2009
I'm another reader who really enjoyed The Glass Castle, though I read it at about the time the James Frey fracas broke out and was left wondering how much was memoir and how much was novel. This theme continued for me in the current book. Although Ms. Walls makes it clear that this is a novel, from the comment in the back of the book, it seems clear that she didn't really want to. However, to me it definitely read like a work of fiction, with a superhuman lead character who can do no wrong.
First, the good points. I found the novel to be engaging, with interesting characters. The description of the settings was lush and detailed, but not to the point of boredom. The protagonist, Lily Casey, is portrayed as a tough, independent woman in a time when these traits weren't necessarily valued in the fairer sex. Unfortunately, I got quite tired of Lily Casey by the end of the book. As the chapters went on they each stuck to the following formula:
1. Lily finds herself in a bind
2. Lily has a great outlook on life and doesn't let it get her down
3. Lily has some sassy one-liners
4. Lily uses incredible resourcefulness to get out of the bind
It was similar to watching a one-woman play on stage where only the scenery and props keep changing behind the actress. Therefore, after awhile, I found myself incredibly bored with Lily and her story.