Thursday, March 10, 2011

Review: Half-Broke Horses

Author: Jeannette Walls
Publisher/Format: Scribner (2009),first edition, hardcover, 275 pagesCharacters: Lily Casey Smith, Big Jim Smith, Rosemary, Little Jim
Subject: growing up on a ranch in SW US
Setting: Arizona, Texas, Chicago
Genre: Fictional memoir
Source: Public library

The jacket cover says this is "Laura Ingalls Wilder for adults."  That was all it took to grab me.  Jeanette Walls had a very colorful grandmother. She tells her grandma's story using the format of a memoir  in grandma's voice, but admits that she has written it as fiction.  The enchanting tale of Lily Casey Smith is entirely believable whether it is fictionalized or not.  Walls obviously draws on actual interaction with her grandmother, and incorporates family anecdotes to embellish the story.  It is oral history at its best.

Lily Casey was an independent, intelligent, and tradition defying woman.  Raised on a ranch during the depression, she was a child of poverty, desperation, violent weather, famine, and limited opportunities.  By the age of six, she was helping her father break wild horses, and learning that the only real obstacles to her future were ones she allowed to go unchallenged.  When she was fifteen, she left home, riding her horse by herself over 500 miles of wilderness and desert to take a teaching position in a small village (she herself hadn't even formally graduated from the 8th grade.)  Later, she learned to fly a plane, she went off to live in the big city (Chicago) to make her fortune, but gave up that dream because she missed the West and returned to continue a series of teaching positions in various small towns.  Eventually she completed college and got her teacher certification, but was never happy in 'big city' schools with all their bureacracy.

With her husband, "Big Jim" Smith, she helped manage a huge (160,000 acre) spread owned by an overseas corporation.  She taught her two children and their numerous farmhands how to herd, brand, and slaughter cows, how to geld stallions, how to make do with whatever was available, and how to mend fences.  Drawing on her memories of drought when she was a child, and learning from the example of the great Hoover dam which she had visited, she was able to convince her husband they needed to build a series of earthen dams throughout their ranch to guard against dry times.

Walls takes the story through her mother's early marriage to Rex Walls, and leaves us with a picture of an incredible woman - a true 'pistol packing mamma', a school marm extraordinaire, and a grandma every little girl would definitely enjoy.This was the pick of our book club this month, and a great one it was.

I listened to parts of it in audio--read by the author.  It was the only negative part of my experience.  Jeanette Walls' voice just didn't sit well with me, and her diction is not crisp enough to carry the story through.  It would have been better done by a professional reader.


  1. The "Laura Ingalls Wilder for adults" comment would have drawn me to this book, too! I have such fond memories of Little House on the Prairie tv show and then the books when I was a little bit older.
    Lily Casey Smith's life story sounds amazing! What a strong, capable, accomplished woman. Based on your experience with the audio version, I think I'll make a note to read the paper copy of this terrific book!

    Thank you for a wonderful review!

  2. This is a great idea - take a real woman's story but write it as a fictional memoir so you can fill in the blanks and make it more interesting. I have been wondering what to do with a story about another woman; must keep this idea in mind.


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