Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel by Jeannette Walls

The author of The Glass Castle has once again drawn on her family's hardscrabble history in West Texas and cast her grandmother's life story into a first-person account.

(Scribner, 272 pages, $26)

The patch of West Texas known as High Lonesome “wasn’t a place for the soft of head or weak of heart,” writes Jeannette Walls. It’s where Walls’ grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, grew up as “bony and tough” as the horses and chickens her family raised. Livestock and children both took what ­sustenance they could from the hard, dry soil that seemed to stretch out forever. When it was time to move on, Lily saddled up a horse named Patches and rode alone for 28 days just to land her first assignment as a traveling schoolteacher. “I’d make myself a sagebrush fire, eat some jerky and biscuits, and lie in my blanket, listening to the howling of the distant coyotes,” we hear her recall. She was 15. Her adventures were just beginning.

For Walls, a family history that seemed an embarrassment when she was a New York City gossip columnist is now “a gift that keeps on giving,” said Craig Wilson in USA Today. The Glass Castle, Walls’ 2005 memoir about her own hardscrabble youth and her parents’ later homelessness, transformed her into an international publishing star. Her second book just might launch a new genre, said Lisa Schwarzbaum in Entertainment Weekly. Borrowing the concept of a “true-life novel” from Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, she has chosen with Half Broke Horses to cast her grandmother’s life story as a first-person account, even though the protagonist herself died 41 years ago. The result proves to be “an elegant act of literary transubstantiation”: Walls’ matter-of-fact march through Lily’s career as a teacher, taxi driver, rancher, bootlegger, wife, mother, and airplane pilot “unfolds in a narrative as bold and self-assured” as a cowboy’s lasso throw.

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Certainly, the new book is packed with incident, said Janet Maslin in The New York Times. But because its narrator attaches a nugget of “cracker-barrel wisdom” to seemingly every anecdote, from her sister’s suicide to her own breakup with a “crumb bum” husband, this book is considerably more “grating” than Walls’ debut. Yet readers may start to notice that some of Lily’s supposed wisdom is meant to be read as humbug, said Janet Okoben in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. That’s part of the pleasure of the homespun voice Walls has created. What’s more, Half Broke Horses reminds us that any book that pairs “a gifted storyteller” with great stories is a “rare and intoxicating” event.

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