Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Walls

If Jeanette Walls’ memoir, The Glass Castle captivated you like it did me, then you’ve been waiting for her second book since you finished the first one. Well, your wait is over. Half Broke Horses, her new novel about her maternal grandmother, is here.

After finishing Glass Castle, many readers wanted to know more about Walls’ eccentric mother, Rose Mary. According to the author interview at the end of the audiobook, Jeannette took their advice and began interviewing her mother to gather material for a second non-fiction book. During the interviews, her mother suggested the book be about her mother, Lily Casey Smith, who was a real character.

When Walls began writing, still determined to write about her mother’s life, her grandmother’s voice dominated the story. Finally, Walls succumbed to the sheer force of Grandma Lily’s personality and wrote about her instead.

Lily didn’t have much childhood on her family’s desolate New Mexico ranch. With a mother who considered herself too much of a fine lady for farm labor and a gimpy father with a severe speech impediment, Lily grew up fast. At a young age she learned to break horses, care for her younger siblings, and squeeze in school when she could. Eventually, she became a teacher, moved to Chicago, then moved back to New Mexico.

She was an intelligent, opinionated, hard-working, penny-pinching woman. When she decided to do something, no one could stop her. Teaching was always her fall back career, but along the way she worked as a maid, married a bigamist, raced horses as a jockey, sold moonshine, became a landlord in Phoenix, and spied on her husband. She preferred driving cattle or the hearse she used as a school bus over cooking and laundry. And one of the great pleasures of her life was taking out her false teeth and showing them off to strangers.

Because the book is based on secondhand recollections from Rose Mary and Jeannette’ sketchy memories of Grandma Lily, who died when Walls was eight, the author calls the book a novel. But it’s written from the first person perspective of Lily and reads like a memoir.

Though it wasn’t as captivating as Glass Castle, I still enjoyed Half Broke Horses. Lily reminded me of the tough, wiry characters in Camp Crook, South Dakota where we lived for seven years. Apparently, something about living in remote, dry areas of the west encourages people to cultivate their inner eccentricity and put it on display. By the time you finish reading it, you’ll have a better understanding of the lifestyle Rose Mary adopted as an adult. And every now and then, when you think about Lily Casey Smith, you’ll chuckle and laugh out loud. She’s ranch country personified, and an unforgettable character.

Thank you, Jeannette Walls, for sharing your grandmother with your fans.