Thursday, July 5, 2012

'Half Broke Horses' is steely tribute to the American West

'Half Broke Horses' is steely tribute to the American West | Books, Half Broke Horses, The Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls, Read To Succeed, RTS, One Book
Editor’s Note: Members of the Read To Succeed One Book committee will be contributing monthly book reviews to The Post. If you have any suggestions for future Rutherford County One Books, e-mail

A prequel of sorts to her wildly popular memoir The Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls’ Half Broke Horses is a vivid tribute to the life of her mother’s mother, Lily Casey Smith, a woman who rode horses by the age of 5, taught in some of America’s first Western schools, sold liquor during Prohibition to keep her family financially afloat, and was known as an expert markswoman. Gripping and inspiring, Half Broke Horses reminds us how the West was won – by cowboys, ranchers, and women like Lily.

Initially I was little suspicious of Half Broke Horses being yet another memoir that would more than likely focus on poverty, overcoming adversity, God, Mom and apple pie. After the first chapter, I was racing through the pages to discover what happened next. Lily’s personal stories are fascinating but the larger cultural perspective that Walls provides is just as intriguing.

For readers of The Glass Castle, it’s easy to spy the patterns in Walls’ family – a history of absent -minded parents and self-reliant children who are forced to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

Walls writes in the first person, effecting a wonderful simulation of Lily’s voice as she reflects on her loving, though eccentric, father – who would rather invest in new show dogs than finish paying for her education – and her mother, a delicate Southern belle who refused to work the farm for fear of ruining her complexion.

In spite of her curious family relationships, Lily thrives. From her father she learns to break wild horses, being especially careful with those which are “half-broke” – between wild and gentled.
The metaphor is carried throughout the book, signifying the tensions between settled society and the still-developing American West – tensions Lily comes to experience throughout her life in her roles as teacher, wife, mother and rancher.

What makes Lily truly memorable is her resilience and ability to not only survive the elements, but also live fully despite formidable circumstances. She, along with her husband Jim, become the epitome of self-made Americans as they develop a cattle ranch in Arizona and fight political, environmental and financial setbacks to carve out a family life in the Depression and during America’s recovery.  But in the mist of breaking horses and castrating bulls on the ranch, Lily also takes flying lessons and becomes a major advocate for education in the new schools.

Well written and enthralling in its red-clay Americana flavor, Half Broke Horses is an excellent and steely tribute to the American West and the families who made it thrive.

Read To Succeed is the community collaborative created to promote literacy in Rutherford County. The objective of this partnership between schools, area agencies, and businesses is to support local programming and raise awareness about the importance of literacy.

For more information and to find out how you can make a difference in Rutherford County’s literacy rates, visit opinions expressed in this book review are not necessarily representative of Read To Succeed, but simply intended to promote the joy of reading.

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