I did not read Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, but I think I know the basics about it — that it was a memoir of her relationship with her crazy parents. Memory (so unreliable) tells me there’s an anecdote about Walls, in a cab on an NYC street, seeing a homeless woman going through a trash can and recognizes this as her mother. Who prefers homelessness.
Reading Half Broke Horses, I was glad I knew no more, because this is the story of Walls’ maternal grandmother, Lily Casey, a spitfire who taught school, broke horses, flew, ranched, sold moonshine… you get the picture. Walls bills this as “A True Life Novel.” It’s narrated in Lily’s voice, but since Lily died when Walls was eight, the information is second-hand at best. I have no problem with this (I’m not shelving books at Barnes & Noble, where it might present a problem). True, half-true, rumored, embroidered, made up — it’s a story. I don’t much care what else it’s called.
And it is a heck of a story. It begins with indomitable Lily, aged perhaps ten, saving her younger brother and sister from a flash flood by hauling them up into a cottonwood tree and keeping them awake all night so that they don’t fall into the water below them. Plucky, practical, tough as boots — that’s our Lily.
She had quite a life. Born in 1901, she lived mostly in the Southwest which was very empty in those days. Walls has a good eye for the natural beauty of her grandmother’s surroundings, whether she’s in rocky hard-bitten West Texas or a paradisal Arizona hamlet on an enormous lake. Casey was a teacher, despite her own initial lack of formal education (she loses a job at one point because she didn’t get past eighth grade, but later earns a college degree). She was often sent to the remote, poor schools where nobody else would go, and some of them were located in stupendously beautiful places.
Casey also got into trouble with the parents or the school administrators. This is where the book wobbles a bit. We know (I think most readers will know: The Glass Castle sold very well) that Jeannette Walls’ mother was unstable. We have to wonder what role her mother played in that. So once Lily has baby Rosemary, we’re on the watch for the Signs of a Bad Mother. Which are certainly there: Lily is insensitive, self-righteous, and has a scary temper. It’s a pity that we automatically draw a straight line between these characteristics and her daughter’s eventual fate. I do give Walls a lot of credit for letting the reader perceive the similarities between Lily and her own self-righteous angry father. And she is amazingly even-handed with these characters, who are, after all, her family.
Best of all is Lily’s voice. Recounting the advice she got from a nun in one of her episodes of schooling, she says, “Even women who got married should be capable of [working], since men had such a habit of dying on you and, from time to time, running off.” Or her father’s rationale for trying to become an author instead of a rancher: “Westerns sell like hotcakes, he kept saying, and besides, a writer’s got no overhead and he never has to worry about the weather.” As Lily might have said, “He got that right.”