Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Half-Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls

Summary (courtesy ofGoodReads):   Lily Casey Smith, this novel's feisty Texas protagonist, is a frontier teacher, a rancher, a rodeo rider, a poker player, and bootlegger. In Half Broke Horses, she survives droughts, tornados, floods, poverty, a bigamous husband, and whatever else fate can throw against her. Based on author Jeannette Walls's grandmother, Lily is a plausible character because she has a voice that synchronizes with her history.

And here's what I thought:   Actually, the above summary doesn't quite do this book justice.   This is a great book, based on the author's own grandmother --- and she's quite the character.

If you have already read Walls' nonfiction book, The Glass Castle, then you might remember the bits about her grandmother that were in that story.   If not, that's okay -- this book introduces you to Lily as a child, and takes you through her life, growing up on a ranch, going to Chicago, and then returning to ranching as an adult.   Lily's not your usual grandmother (at least, probably not the usual grandmother stereotype we sometimes think of) --- she's a formidable force of nature, horse-training, rancher and teacher.  As I said, Walls based the book on her real-life grandmother, so much of the story comes from reminisces, but Walls does use her imagination to fill in a bit.  The story is told first-person, so we experience everything through Lily -- and she makes for a pretty interesting narrator.   Lily is pretty unflappable, taking what comes in stride, and always figuring out the best way to handle situations.  She's clever and inventive, and never gives up -- she's one tough cookie.   Which is not to say that she's not likeable; she is, and she's got a sense of humor.  Will you find this book funny?  I did at times, especially because of Lily's humor is wry at times (which I like).   

It's interesting to think about women like Lily, women who weren't afraid to speak their mind, and go their own way, even when it wasn't common for women to do so.  At the age of fifteen, Lily left the family ranch to take a teaching job 500 miles away -- and she rode there on her horse, camping out along the way.  She learns how to drive one of the first cars, and later, takes flying lessons.  When faced with drought, or tornadoes, tragedy, or even prejudice, Lily stands tough and tall.  She's the kind of woman that doesn't necessarily makes the history, but still influences history, all the same.  The fact that the story takes us through her life, with her telling us her story, makes it more interesting that I think a nonfiction book about Lily would have been.   Walls is a top-notch author, and her writing is strong and fluid, with an even pace.  I had enjoyed The Glass Castle quite a bit, so I had high hopes for this book -- and I wasn't disappointed.

First sentences: Those old cows knew trouble was coming before we did.  It was late on an August afternoon, the air hot and heavy like it usually was in the rainy season.  Earlier, we'd seen some thunderheads near the Burnt Spring Hills, but they'd passed way up to the north.   I'd mostly finished my chores for the day and was heading down to the pasture with my brother, Buster, and my sister, Helen to bring the cows in for their milking.  But when we got there, those girls were acting all bothered."

Thoughts on the cover:  The children on the cover are not Lily and her siblings -- it's a photo by Dorothea Lange.  However, it does fit with the story, and I like Lange's photography, so I thought it was eye-catching and a good match to the story.


Alexis @ Reflections of a Bookaholic said...

Based on the description, I thought this book might have too much going on, but your review changed my mind. Fab review :)

Jo K said...

The opening is captivating, seems a good book to read. i see what you mean by Lily being interesting narrator. Great review!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

I thought this one was great too. I loved Lily's voice, she was so strong.

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