Half Broke Horses: A True Life Novel/Thoughts

Friday, December 25, 2009

So of course I'd read The Glass Castle (Jeannette Walls) and of course, therefore, I expected so much from Half Broke Horses, the "true-life novel" that serves as prequel (of sorts) to Walls' bestselling memoir. It's the story of Walls' maternal grandmother, Lily Casey Smith—a plain speaking (oh, is she plain speaking) woman of hardscrabble beginnings who is breaking horses by the age of six and riding 500 miles, alone, across the desert, by the age of 15, and sleeping on the floor of the schoolhouse where she teaches before she's even turned 20. Lily's best friend is killed in gruesome fashion during her Chicago years. The first man she marries is a two-timing fraud. She bootlegs to make ends meet, she races horses, she learns to fly a plane. She whips her daughter, Rosemary, when she has a lesson to teach.

It's the stuff of a very good story. But it is not, sadly, a story well made. Walls writes the book in her grandmother's voice—a voice she describes, in her author's note, as "distinctive." But I did not find distinction in the way the voice is rendered here; I found (and perhaps I am the only one?) a simple one-thing-after-another voice, a now-I'll-tell-you-this-thing voice, a voice unmeasured, unlifted. One expects to hear, in a woman who had lived so wildly, so bravely, something idiosyncratic about the speech, some oddly tied-on metaphors, some regionalized expressions; they aren't here. One expects to find momentum and drive; the book is instead matter of fact—designed to prove, it seems, that all the strange events Walls captures so masterfully in The Glass Castle could never have been anything but. Consider this final paragraph:

"With the way Rex and Rosemary's life together was shaping up, those kids were in for some wild times. But they came from hardy stock, and I figured they'd be able to play with the cards they'd been dealt. Plus, I'd be hovering around. No way in hell were Rex and Rosemary cutting me out of the action when it came to my own grandchildren. I had a few things to teach those kids, and there wasn't a soul alive who could stop me."

Every author needs to know where she or he is headed, in general fashion, when starting out. I wondered, as I read Half Broke Horses, whether the book would have benefited from being far less purposeful, so that it might be more fully felt. I stand, I know, in a minority here, as I also stood with The Help. I'm eager to hear from those of you who have also read the book.


bermudaonion said...

I haven't read this one yet, but I've really been looking forward to it. After your review, I've lowered my expectations some.

Beth F said...

I have an ARC of the book but haven't gotten around to reading it yet. I appreciate your thoughts and honesty about it.

e said...

You made me curious. The story sounds great, maybe somebody should rewrite it?

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

This was one of the most amazing books. I really enjoyed the story.

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