By Marie Arana
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 17, 2009
HALF BROKE HORSES
A True-Life Novel
By Jeannette Walls
Scribner. 272 pp. $26
It's a rare family memoir that packs all the power of a Charles Dickens novel. The adults must be as cruel as they are foolish, the children as resourceful as they are wise. Yet the characters in Jeannette Walls's best-selling 2005 memoir, "The Glass Castle," possessed all those Dickensian qualities. Walls's father, Rex, was a con man and an alcoholic; her mother, Rose Mary, unhinged and immature; together they made for disastrous parents, and the misery they inflicted was dire.
So it's no surprise that the story of this coal-town family, in all its glorious dysfunction, sold 2.5 million copies. Overseas, it was read in 25 languages. The readers who got to know Rex and Rose Mary were legion, and they closed "The Glass Castle" wanting to know more.
But the sequel that Walls now offers is not a memoir at all. Written from the point of view of her gritty West Texan grandmother, "Half Broke Horses" is described as a "True-Life Novel," and the story it tells takes place not within the author's lifetime, but half a century before she was born.
The heroine and narrator is Lily Casey Smith, the spunky daughter of an ex-convict and a pious, God-fearing mother. Born in 1901 in a dugout, "more or less a big hole on the side of the riverbank," Lily grows up with a floor that runs to mud during the rainy season and a ceiling that drops the occasional snake or scorpion. Her father believes in a Theory of Purpose; her mother believes in the power of prayer. In truth, they agree on very little, aside from the principle that bathrooms inside houses are downright disgusting.
By 5, Lily is learning to train her father's horses. At 6, she's in charge of breaking them in. A veteran of ill winds and droughts, she learns to love that hard, yellow land, even though the land doesn't appear to love her much in return. When a tornado smashes a windmill into the family abode, her father wails, "If I owned hell and west Texas, I do believe I'd sell west Texas and live in hell."
But Lily is an indomitable young woman. By 12, she is running the ranch, mucking out the barns, helping to geld the horses, giving the ranch hands all the orders. At 15, she proves so headstrong that she heads out on horseback to make a new life as an itinerant teacher, 500 miles away on the Arizona frontier.
As it turns out, everywhere she goes Lily strikes people as being bullheaded. When she is fired from one too many schoolrooms, she heads for Chicago just as World War I comes to a close, but in the flood of returning soldiers, she's unable to find a job. She works as a housemaid for rich people she finds unintelligent, ends up irritating them, floats around the big city with a new friend she will lose, and ends up marrying a traveling salesman. But actually the "crumb-bun" isn't traveling at all, only living across town with another wife and children.
So it goes. Lily runs up against hardships and survives them, steeling her resolve to be true to herself and speak her mind. Homesick for the West, she returns to Arizona and becomes known as "the mustang-breaking, poker-playing, horse-race-winning schoolmarm of Coconino County." Along the way she meets a lapsed Mormon, makes it clear she won't put up with any funny polygamy business, then asks for his hand in marriage. With Jim Smith at her side, Lily will go on to run liquor during the Prohibition, earn a college degree, learn to fly an airplane, survive the Great Depression and run a 100,000-acre ranch just north of the Juniper Mountains. Most important, she will give birth to the wild, irrepressible Rosemary, who, in turn, will grow up to marry the adorable rake Rex and give birth to four more indomitable children who will face their own travails in the coal hills of West Virginia. Off they will go like a herd of half-broke horses unfit for corral or the open range.
Let me take a cue from Lily Casey Smith and speak plainly here: This book is no "Glass Castle." Beyond what we already know about the lives of Rex and Rosemary when we start these pages, there is little sparkle or narrative drive. Too often the prose is flat and unimaginative. There's no one to love, certainly not Lily. And not until Rex appears on Page 248 (a handful of pages before the end), does the dialogue pick up, the author's voice kick into a nice trot and the prose shine. "Half Broke Horses" may be a commendable chronicle of an admirably tough woman on America's western frontier, but a well-crafted work of fiction it is not, and it cannot compare to classic "true-life novels" like Jerzy Kosinski's "The Painted Bird," Frederick Exley's "A Fan's Notes" or Charles Dickens's "Great Expectations."
For a great many readers of this book, it probably won't matter. It will be enough to come upon a few sentences such as these and understand how Rosemary learned to tolerate her own slovenliness: "Levi's we didn't wash at all. . . . We wore them and wore them until they were shiny with mud, manure, tallow, cattle slobber, bacon fat, axle grease, and hoof oil -- and then we wore them some more. . . . When [they] reached that degree of conditioning, they were sort of like smoke-cured ham or aged bourbon, and you couldn't pay a cowboy to let you wash his."
It's useful information if you're curious about Jeannette Walls's mother. But the novel itself is too tied to "The Glass Castle" to function well on its own. Every page, every chapter, seems to work only as a prolegomenon to the memoir. That's no way to read a work of fiction. As Rex says to Lily in the last pages of this book, "The problem with being attached to an anchor is it's damned hard to fly."
Arana is a former editor of Book World and is now a writer at large for The Post.