Monday, January 18, 2010

2010 Book Four: Half Broke Horses

Is Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls a novel or a history?

Something in between apparently. On the cover, the book is billed as a "true-life novel." In the author's note, Walls said she sees the book as an oral history, "undertaken with the storyteller's traditional liberties." She acknowledges that "I have also drawn on my imagination to fill in details that are hazy or missing."

There's nothing wrong with Walls' liberties. However you take the book, Half Broke Horses is an entertaining narrative and its narrator, Walls' grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, is a captivating character, fictional or otherwise. Walls' prose is unadorned, which is in keeping with the story she tells, and the narrative is a straight-forward chronological account, told in the first person.

If there were a Bible of the women's liberation movement this would be a book of that Bible. Lily Casey Smith is an independent woman; hard-working, level-headed and firmly decided in her opinions and her philosophy of life. From her childhood, on a ranch in West Texas, Lily understands that it is important that a woman be able to provide for herself. Against great odds, including the lack of an eighth grade education, she becomes a school teacher. (Lily later completes her eighth grade and even secures a college degree.)

Lilly is an inspiration. Her life is an example of what hard work, determination and a refusal to knuckle under to hardship -- including an ill-considered first marriage -- can accomplish. She was never wealthy, but she lived life fully and well and this book -- whether you consider it a novel or a biography -- is a fitting tribute to that life.

Two random thoughts on the book:

Why are the two words "Half Broke" of the title not hyphenated? The words are hyphenated in the text. The missing hyphen is annoying.

Walls delivers one of the best opening lines in recent memory: "Those old cows knew trouble was coming before we did." If you appreciate that line, you'll appreciate this book.

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