Jeannette Walls captivated me with her own life story in her first book, The Glass Castle. In Half Broke Horses, she tells her maternal grandmother's tale, from a first person perspective. This book is equally riveting. The story opens with a desperate urgency as a flash flood threatens to drown young Lily and her siblings. Lily's quick thinking saves them, and as they wade home the next day, the children's mother declares that God has saved them because she has been on her knees praying all night. She insists that the exhausted kids get down on there knees and pray.
Lily has a strong voice right from the beginning: "There weren't no guardian angel, Dad," I said. I started explaining how I'd gotten us to the cottonwood tree in time, figuring out how to switch places when our arms got tired and keeping Buster and Helen awake through the long night by quizzing them.
Dad squeezed my shoulder, "Well, darling, maybe the angel was you."
Lily grows up with the idea that she can do anything she makes up her mind to do. She is fearless and her spunk and quick mind get her out of plenty of scrapes. Her unconventional behavior must have really stood out in her time.
As a young woman, Lily works briefly as a maid to wealthy city folk. But she doesn't let domestic chores weigh her down at her own home. When Lily and her husband are employed running a ranch, she cooks nothing but beans and steak. The hands and the family wore shirts backward and inside out before washing them.
"Levi's we didn't wash at all. They shrank too much, and it weakened the threads. So we wore them and wore them until they were shiny with mud, manure, tallow, cattle slobber, bacon fat, axle grease, and hoof oil, and them we wore them some more. Eventually, the Levi's reached a point of grime saturation where they couldn't get any dirtier, where they had the feel of oilskin and had become not just waterproof but briar-proof, and that was when you knew you had really broken them in. When Levi's 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."
The writing is consistent and smooth, so that one hardly thinks about the words and just "lives" through them alongside Lily and her adventures. Not exactly an angel, Lily sells moonshine during prohibition. She works so hard at all she does that a double courseload at college feels like a vacation.
She can break a horse, read the weather, teach school, drive a car, and fly a plane. Her story is amazing, simultaneously inspiring and sad. Those who enjoyed A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or Angela's Ashes will love Half Broke Horses.