Half Broke Horses review contains affiliate links at no cost to you.
I love author Jeannette Walls. I loved her autobiography, The Glass Castle, and one thing I wondered after reading it was why her mom was such a character (her dad was quite a mess, but he was an alcoholic, which I guess explains him). Jeannette got many questions about her mom, and so she decided to write a book about her life. But in the process, her mom suggested that HER mom (Jeannette’s grandma, Lily Casey Smith) had actually lived a more book-worthy life. So, Jeannette wrote Lily’s story. The result is Half Broke Horses.
I found the book fascinating — maybe a notch down from Glass Castle, but great nonetheless. Lily is amazing — born in 1901 on a ranch out West, she is a resourceful child to say the least. The book opens with her saving herself and her two younger siblings from a flash flood by climbing into a tree, and spending the night there with them.
Lily craves adventure: “I never knew a girl to have such gumption,” her mom said of her, “but I’m not too sure that’s a good thing.” Lily’s parents send her to a Catholic school, which she loves, although their lack of money means that she has to leave before graduating. A nun there suggests that Lily would be a good teacher: “You have a strong personality. The women I know with strong personalities, the ones who might have become generals or the heads of companies if they were men, become teachers,” she tells Lily.
At 15, Lily is hired as a teacher. Her lack of training isn’t a problem because WWI is on and teachers are scarce. She has to travel 500 miles to get to the one-room school, and she gets there riding a horse. Her mom worries about her traveling alone, but Lily is practical — “You had to do what you had to do.”
After the war, Lily loses the teaching job. She heads to the big city of Chicago. She meets a man there and marries him, and works as a maid. But all is not as it seems — particularly when she discovers after a few years that her husband is actually married to another woman as well, and has kids.
I love making connections while reading books, and that happened many times with this book. I remember reading “Devil in the White City” and wondering how the villain in that book could murder so many young women in Chicago in the late 1800s with no one knowing. Reading this book, I understand more — communication was by mail only, and letters took ages to arrive. If a relative moved far away, you might never hear from them again. There were also allusions to the Dust Bowl, the Depression, and more.
Lily returns West and attends college. “I wished I could take every course in the curriculum and read every book in the library. Sometimes after I finished a particularly good book, I had the urge to get the library card, find out who else had read the book, and track them down to talk about it.” Gosh I like this lady!
Eventually, she marries Jim, a kind older man whose first wife has died. They have a daughter, Rose Mary (who would go on to be Jeannette’s mom), and a son. Jim and Lily manage a ranch, and this is truly the happiest part of all the family’s lives. They are frugal but happy — Jim saves the ranch owners money by reusing nails and saving old barbed wire. Lily, never very domestic, does little laundry. The family wear their shirts, then wear them backwards, then inside out, and then inside out backwards before they’re washed. She cut off and saved the buttons from threadbare shirts and used them as rags.
Little Rose Mary loves the freedom of growing up on the ranch. She often runs around naked, riding horses and swimming in swimming holes. She has a deep affection for animals and feels bad watching her dad and the ranch hands breaking horses — “They just want to be free,” she says, and Lily replies, “In this life hardly anyone gets to do what they want to do.”
Lily has various teaching jobs here and there, but she’s often let go. In one location, she’s hired to teach a bunch of kids, mostly all children of a polygamous man. She teaches the girls about all the job and educational opportunities available to them, but one night the dad shows up. He is unhappy: “Teacher lady, you’re not preparing these girls for their lives. You’re only upsetting and confusing them. There will be no more talk of worldy ways.” Lily refuses to back down — and she isn’t hired back for the next year. This vignette was really poignant to me, as I often have wished the Duggar girls (of the “19 Kids and Counting” show) could have a similar talking-to.
Lily tried sending Rose Mary away to school, without success — after her free youth, Rose Mary is unsuited for the structure of school. “I always liked to think I’d never met a kid I couldn’t teach,” said Lily. “Turns out I was wrong. That kid is you.”
This passage that gives the book its name — and that can also be seen as summing up Rose Mary’s life:
“The problem with half-broke horses like these was that no one took the time to train them … Not properly broken, they were always scared and hated humans. A lot of times the cowboys released them once the roundup was over, but by then they’d lost some of the instincts that kept them alive out in the desert. They were, however, intelligent and had pluck, and if you broke them right, they made good horses.”
Can you tell I loved this book? I could say so much more 😉 Just fascinating insights into how people wind up the way they do, and the way traits travel through generations and pop up in the most unexpected places. Read it. You won’t regret it.
Here’s an interesting interview where Jeannette discusses this book.