'Half Broke Horses:' Jeannette Walls fictionalizes the no-bull life of her grandmother
In "Half Broke Horses," memoirist Jeannette Walls ("The Glass Castle") writes a "true-life novel" about her indomitable grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, who faced down floods, knives, drunks, sullen schoolchildren, conniving men, tornadoes, barren farmland and poverty in the name of raising her family. Walls discusses her book at 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 12, at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.
Seattle Times columnist
The author of "Half Broke Horses" will discuss her book at 7 p.m. Monday at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
Readers of Jeannette Walls' best-selling memoir, "The Glass Castle," no doubt wondered how her mother, Rose Mary, could have become the woman we met on the very first page of the book:
She was homeless and picking through garbage on the streets of New York City, where her sleek and successful daughter saw her from the back of a cab, and then slunk down in shame.
Walls' grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, wouldn't have been that discreet. She would have jumped out of the car and given that Rose Mary a good talkin' to in a voice that has never uttered an excuse.
It's a voice you grow to love in Walls' second book, "Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel" (Scribner, 288 pp., $26) that tells Lily's life story.
Walls doesn't just describe her grandmother's life, she channels her in a plain, no-bull tone as stark as the high desert where she was raised as the oldest of three children.
In the opening scene, it is she who saves the three of them during a flash flood, keeping her younger siblings Buster and Helen beside her, as water rushes below them, washing out all they survey — and just about all their family had.
It is that characteristic, that steeliness, that gets Lily through her life — doing what needed to be done to help her family.
What started as chores on her parents' Arizona farm evolved into her teaching her younger siblings, and finishing the training of the "half broke horses" her father acquired, and for which the book is named.
"... I got thrown plenty, which terrified Mom, but Dad just waved her off and helped me up," Lily says early in the book.
"Most important thing in life," he would say, "Is learning how to fall."
Lily's gift, it turns out, was in how quickly she learned how to stay standing.
She faced down floods, knives, drunks, sullen schoolchildren, conniving men, tornadoes, barren farmland and aching poverty. She sold liquor out of her kitchen to feed her family. She silenced gossips. She loved her husband and her children.
Off in the background, there was a Depression, a war. Money came and went.
But she barely complained. Because as quick as Lily was to grab the reins of a "green" horse, tell someone what-for, or focus on the struggles of one of her rural students, she grabbed as many adventures as she could for herself. She raced cars. She flew planes. She made her own history.
Whether any of this "true-life novel" is made up, well, readers won't care, for the facts of Lily's life are a formidable frame in which Walls has painted an admirable picture.
Those who dabble in genealogy, or sit before older relatives, a recorder in hand, will be inspired by what Walls has done with her grandmother's story.
And they will hear Lily Smith Casey's voice in their heads, telling them to just get to it.
Nicole Brodeur is a metro columnist
for The Seattle Times.
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.