Bookmarks Issue: 

A True-Life Novel

A-Half Broke HorsesJournalist Jeannette Walls, whose harrowing memoir The Glass Castle ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection July/Aug 2005) sold over 2.5 million copies in 23 languages, fictionalizes the life of her no-nonsense maternal grandmother – "Grandma Smith" in The Glass Castle .

The Story: "Most important thing in life is learning how to fall," advises young Lily Casey Smith's father shortly after she has been thrown by a "green" horse. Born in a West Texas dirt dugout in 1910, the spunky Smith will never forget this lesson. She manages her father's ranch by the age of 12 and takes a teaching job in a one-room Arizona schoolhouse at 15. She goes on to lead an exceptional life for a woman of her generation--playing poker, racing cars, flying planes--and survives natural disasters, personal tragedies, the Great Depression, and two World Wars, tenaciously climbing back in the saddle after each "fall."
Scribner. 272 pages. $26. ISBN: 9781416586289

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"Half Broke Horses reads ... like a lively oral history, filled with personal recollections and storytelling. The history is both dramatic and straightforward. The woman telling this story is even more so." Augusta Scattergood

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Jeannette Walls bases her first novel, Half Broke Horses, on the life of her grandmother, once again proving that the combination of gifted storyteller with some great stories is both rare and intoxicating. ... The magic of Half Broke Horses arrives in the way Walls takes the nine-miles-to-school-uphill-in-a-snowstorm stories we've all heard at the Thanksgiving dinner table and lets them breathe." Janet Okoben

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"[Laura Ingalls] Wilder's stories have acquired such mythic power (in The Glass Castle, Walls lists them among her favorite childhood books) that it can be easy to forget how many American families shared similar histories, each with their own touchstones of calamity, endurance and hard-won reward. With convincing, unprettified narration, Walls weaves her own ancestor into this collective rough-and-tumble heritage." Liesl Schillinger

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"She paints Lily as a bit of an attention hound and an avowed fan of modernity, a woman who honed her entrepreneurial skills bootlegging whiskey from beneath her baby's crib, came to like cars more than horses, and who took up barnstorming in cahoots with her future son-in-law. It is precisely that yen for showmanship that Walls has corralled to entertaining effect here, and the stories gallop along at such a clipped pace that there's not a spare moment to wax rhapsodic about the psychological implications of Lily's choices nor the emotional intricacies of any of her relationships." Ellen Urbani

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"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. ... 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." Nicole Brodeur

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"She has managed to make her second book almost as inviting as her first, even though its upright heroine is never as startling as Ms. Walls's parents were. Though Half Broke Horses fills Lily's story with dramatic events, from the suicide of her sister to her betrayal by a ‘crumb bum' husband, this is a tamer, tidier book. And it has a less complicated soul." Janet Maslin

Washington Post 2 of 5 Stars
"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." Marie Arana

Critical Summary

Originally conceived as a biography based on family interviews and historical research, Walls found herself filling in too many blanks for Half Broke Horses to remain a work of nonfiction, so she assumed Smith's indomitable voice and set out to write a novelistic recreation of Smith's unconventional life. Most critics were captivated by Smith's earthy, straightforward style, despite the steady stream of repetitive axioms intermingled with her antics. Only the Washington Post seemed thoroughly disappointed, lamenting that "this book is no Glass Castle." Though Smith, "a gumption-packin' ranch gal whose pluck never quits" (New York Times), may not rise to the intensity of Walls's troubled, nomadic parents, Half Broke Horses nevertheless tells the heartwarming story of an irrepressible woman who carved her own destiny.

Also by the Author

The Glass Castle (2005): In this remarkable memoir, written with surprising grace and warmth, Walls details her itinerant, poverty-stricken childhood with an alcoholic father and mentally ill mother. ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection July/Aug 2005)