Lily Casey Smith, born in 1901, tells her remarkable story in Half Broke Horses. It doesn’t matter that the strong-willed Texas-bred horse breaker, teacher, taxi driver, rancher, and airplane pilot has been dead for decades. Lily’s granddaughter is journalist Jeannette Walls, author of her own 2005 memoir, The Glass Castle, an extraordinary saga of resilience in the face of world-class family dysfunction. And in an elegant act of literary transubstantiation, Walls gives first-person voice to a kinswoman born too soon to participate in today’s memoir boom. She also provides further insight into how she herself got to be the tough, tender, fearless writer she is: With a mother as memorable (to put it kindly) as The Glass Castle’s Rosemary Smith Walls and a grandma as flinty as the heroine of this frontier tale, Jeannette certainly has never lacked for story material.
Walls calls Half Broke Horses a ”true-life novel,” a useful new category sure to be appropriated by future first-person yarn spinners. After a short childhood spent helping her father break said horses, the 15-year-old Lily rode her own mare, Patches, on a 500-mile trek to a teaching job. What happened next and next and next unfolds in a narrative as bold and self-assured as a cowboy’s lasso skills.
It’s a fair bet that many readers will come to Walls’ second family memoir because of the power of her first, and those readers need to be prepared: As lively a storyteller as Walls is, she can’t imbue the Laura Ingalls Wilder setting and circumstances with the intensity and immediacy of her previous, authentically first-person account. Still, when the subject turns to Lily’s willful young daughter, Rosemary, it’s a shock to realize that the little girl grows up to become Walls’ eccentric, larger-than-life ”Mom” — without whom The Glass Castle would never have been built. B+