Snakes dropping onto your kitchen table, floods destroying your house, tornadoes flattening towns: this was the world of Lily Casey Smith, the writer's grandmother, who was born and raised in the American Southwest during the early 20th century. Walls takes her grandmother as her subject in this, her second, book, after describing her own itinerant and unstable childhood in The Glass Castle. And despite the flatness of the narrative voice at times, Walls's book masterfully offers us a long-vanished world as seen through the eyes of her no-nonsense, determined, intelligent grandmother.
Lily's story propels itself forward, leaping from one event to another that would make many modern readers' jaws drop. For instance, when she decides to become a teacher, Lily has to ride several hundred miles on her horse, alone, to Red Lake, Arizona, where her new school awaits her. But from her years helping her father break horses on a ranch, Lily barely bats an eyelash at what would seem pretty daunting to other people. Picking up and moving to Chicago or investing in a ranch with her husband- these things Lily did with determination and perseverance, believing that the best way to live was to look forever forward.
By taking on the persona of her grandmother and writing this "true-life novel" from her point of view, Walls has shown us just how versatile she can be. It takes real talent to turn your own life into a readable, or even compelling, narrative, but telling another person's story well requires large helpings of empathy and imagination. Walls most certainly has both of these.
So while the energy that made The Glass Castle so addictive is not as present in Half-Broke Horses, the latter does have a consistent, straightforward tone in keeping with the reliability and plain-spokenness on which Lily prided herself. Those times, though, when she told scummy people off or threatened them with her pearl-handled revolver- those scenes positively crackled. And you found yourself rooting for her, because she was rigidly fair and took no crap from anyone.
Flyer of planes, driver of automobiles, breaker of horses, teacher, wife, mother- Lily Casey Smith was all of these, and her granddaughter has created a lovely monument to her life.