Half Broke Horses is the story of Walls' maternal grandmother Lily Casey Smith, told in first-person narration rather than as a biography. As a result, the book reads like a memoir, although written by the protagonist's granddaughter. Walls writes in the foreword that she never actually intended to write her grandmother's story; Lily Casey Smith died when Walls was eight years old, so most accounts of her were heard secondhand by the author. But in trying to put her mother's story to paper, Walls ended up with the story of her grandmother instead. What results is actually a blend of her grandmother's life and a telling of how her mother -- made famous in Walls' memoir The Glass Castle -- ended up the restless soul she is.
Smith was born and raised in the West, back when it was still Wild. Smith's grandfather was a rancher, and he owned thousands of acres of land in New Mexico. Her father struck out on his own after his father was murdered, and Smith was born in a small dugout house in west Texas. Walls details the difficulties of life on the range, as well as the tenacity such a life instilled in Smith. Lily Casey Smith was a self-proclaimed adventuress, and in her lifetime became a teacher, a divorcee, a pilot, a rancher, a horse tamer, and a mother. She tried her best to teach her children life lessons that would help them in the long run; in the process, she helped shape a creature hell-bent on freedom -- Walls' mother Rose Mary.
Half Broke Horses ends where The Glass Castle begins, but it is truly a masterpiece in its own right. While writing in the voice of her grandmother, Walls seems to have found an authentic narrator. Never does the language ring untrue or seem stilted. Some have compared the story to Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie series, but in my opinion Walls has developed a story all of her own and much more reminiscent of Rick Bragg's rough and tumble All Over But the Shoutin' than Wilder's innocent family saga.
Some of my favorite lines from the book:
At the same time, Dad was working on a book arguing the case for phonetic spelling. He called it A Ghoti out of Water. "Ghoti," he liked to point out, could be pronounced like "fish." The "gh" had the "f" sound in "enough," the "o" had the short "i" sound in "women," and "ti" had the "sh" sound in "nation."
Dad also started a biography of Billy the Kid, who had stopped at the Casey Ranch when Dad was a teenager and asked to swap his spent horse for a fresh mount. "Right polite feller," Dad always said. "And sat a horse well." It turned out the Kid had been on the run, as Dad found out an hour later when a posse stopped and also asked to swap horses. Dad, secretly rooting for the Kid, passed off some old nags on them. Now, in New Mexico, he became so obsessed with the Kid that he put a tintype of him on the wall. Mom hated the Kid, who she called "two-bit trash" because he'd killed a man who was engaged to her cousin, and she hung that fellow's picture next to the Kid's.
But Dad felt the cousin must have deserved to die. The Kid, he said, never shot anyone who didn't need shooting. . . .
His biography was going to vindicate the Kid, prove that Dad, despite his speech impediment, was better with words than anyone who'd ever laughed at him, and make us more money than we'd ever make growing peaches, pecans, tomatoes, and watermelons. Westerns sell like hotcakes, he kept saying, and besides, a writer's got no overhead and he never has to worry about the weather. (p.35-36)