Jeannette Walls, author of the very popular memoir The Glass Castle has a new book coming out next month titled Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel. I held off reading The Glass Castle for a long time–my philosophy of reading is that if everyone else is reading a book, then I don’t have to. I’m a reader who feels most comfortable with midlist books; I look for the little gems that get the good reviews but not the marketing dollars, the books that are often staples of the backlist. I eventually did read The Glass Castle and enjoyed it, even though it’s hard to feel happy or even comfortable while reading about such a miserable childhood.
I picked up an advance reader’s edition of her new book at Book Expo last spring and just finished it, with mixed feelings. Walls originally wanted to write about her mother, but her grandmother’s story proved too compelling and it’s her story that Walls tells instead. Lily Casey Smith was quite a feisty, determined woman, someone who took on whatever came her way and fought it at least to a draw. She lived on ranches in Texas and Arizona, working alongside her father to break horses, trekked 500 miles alone at age 15 to her first teaching job, and when she saw an airplane, she jumped in for a flying lesson. She and her husband suffered the violent ups and downs that go with ranching which meant she was always looking for a way to make money, even if it wasn’t strictly legal.
Half-Broke Horses is a rousing story, well told, but it’s not quite a novel, not quite a biography. With Walls’s subtitle, “a true-life novel,” she’s trying to shoehorn it into both categories, fiction and nonfiction. She’s scrupulous about saying that she’s dramatized her grandmother’s life based on her own childhood memories and the family stories she heard from her mother and other relatives. The book is written in the first person and I imagine that when Walls sat down to write, Lily Casey Smith just appeared on the page in her own voice. Maybe Walls felt that this was the only way to tell the story.
So, although you’ll remember Lily for a long time and enjoy reading about southwestern ranch life in the early 20th century, Half Broke Horses has very little narrative arc. It ends abruptly with the marriage of Walls’s mother Rosemary rather than with the resolution of a plot. Not every life has a novel-worthy plot, although we all do have stories. If you read Half Broke Horses and feel cheated because you haven’t read either a novel or a biography, well, I told you so.