Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel by Jeannette Walls is Reviewed by Lanie Tankard

by Matilda Butler on April 28, 2010

catnav-book-raves-active-3Post #45 – Women’s Memoirs, Book Raves – Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

Reviewed by Lanie Tankard

Consider this approach to writing about your grandmother

Would you like to paint a memoir portrait of a colorful family character — but you’re working with mostly secondhand stories on your palette? One technique for presenting someone several generations before you might be the “true-life novel” that Jeannette Walls employs in her most recent book, Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel.

Walls crafts a prequel to her well-known 2005 memoir, The Glass Castle: A Memoir, the story of her turbulent upbringing. This time, she focuses on Lily Casey Smith, her feisty grandmother. Walls also sketches out her mother’s childhood for readers of the earlier book.

Lily is a handful of gumption from the get-go, in a true-life adventure when she and her two younger siblings are caught in a flash flood. She hauls them up into a cottonwood tree, spending the night until the waters recede. Lily keeps them awake and willing to hang on.

She utilizes this same ability to weather crises many more times. She breaks horses by age six, journeys alone by pony at age fifteen to teach five hundred miles away, encounters heartbreak in Chicago, runs a large Arizona ranch with her husband, survives the Great Depression by creative means, faces her sister’s death, learns to fly, and takes no guff from anyone.

Choice of person in memoir

Lily’s story is well worth reading, and Walls is both a gifted writer and a born storyteller. Half Broke Horses, however, did not draw me in nearly as much as The Glass Castle, which may have been due to the author’s choice to write in first-person as if her grandmother were telling about her own life. To me, that voice felt “off.” I was constantly reminding myself that it was not Walls speaking, as she did so eloquently in the earlier book, but rather her speaking as she imagined her grandmother might have spoken had Walls been there to hear her. My confusion was especially acute in passages where Walls was writing as her grandmother speaking to her daughter, who was the mother of Walls.

Choice of voice in memoir writing

Lily’s voice is constant throughout. It doesn’t sound like a little girl chronicling her story in the beginning when she’s young, and it’s not presented as an old woman reflecting back on her girlhood either.

Another decision when writing memoir is how to handle events one has heard about rather than witnessed. The presentation can resemble the old childhood game of telephone, as stories change with each telling. A helpful question for the memoirist to ponder might be: How can the protagonist’s voice best be imbued with legitimacy?

Develop emotions when writing a memoir

What seemed to be missing for me were Lily’s feelings. She exists in parts of this format as a conveyor of information about events, with suspended emotion. The last section in particular read as though facts were simply being set down hurriedly. The tale of Lily bursting into the governor’s office “to berate him” simply stops (p. 246). The reader never finds out if her threats have any effect on education funding.

The book effectively ends as Lily’s daughter and her new husband, the parents of Walls, leave on their unplanned honeymoon “like a couple of half-broke horses.” An Epilogue tells about the birth of Lily’s grandchildren, one of whom is Jeannette Walls, ending with Lily’s vow to be a part of their lives: “I had a few things to teach those kids….”

And apparently she did. In The Glass Castle, Walls wrote, “…I loved Grandma Smith….She told me I was her favorite grandchild and that I was going to grow up to be something special. I even liked all of her rules. I liked how she woke us up every morning at dawn, shouting, ‘Rise and shine, everybody!’ and insisted that we wash our hands and comb our hair before eating breakfast. She made us hot Cream of Wheat with real butter, then oversaw us while we cleared the table and washed the dishes. Afterward, she took us all to buy new clothes, and we’d go to a movie like Mary Poppins” (pp. 91–92).

Pondering more about choice of person

Now why does that short description of Lily Casey Smith written in third person bring tears to my eyes, when an entire book about her written in first person does not?

Other musings about Half Broke Horses

1. Cream of Wheat carries over as a recurring motif in Half Broke Horses. Walls also uses the book title as a framing device to good effect after she explains a “half-broke horse” early on, and then astutely applies the expression to several situations and people.

2. As an editorial aside, I’m curious why “half-broke horses” is hyphenated within the book but not as the title on the cover — right below where “true-life novel” is hyphenated.

3. Walls constructs her chapters in short bursts of two or three pages, which works well for vignettes.

4. Another effective device is the concept of learning how to fall, which Lily’s father taught her when they were breaking horses. This knowledge not only saves Lily a few times in a literal manner, but also gives her a philosophical mantra. She shares much common wisdom.

5. Walls explains her method in an Author’s Note at the end, stating, “I wrote the story in the first person because I wanted to capture Lily’s distinctive voice, which I clearly recall. At the time, I didn’t think of the book as fiction.”

6. I wonder how it would have worked if Walls had filtered Lily through her own eyes, since Walls was eight years old when her grandmother died and they had become close. Walls might have related the stories she had been told, adding commentary such as, “I can just imagine her saying….” Would more emotion have come through, as it did in The Glass Castle?

7. Walls chose the path she did for a reason, however, and defends that choice: “I saw the book more in the vein of an oral history, a retelling of stories handed down by my family through the years, and undertaken with the storyteller’s traditional liberties.”
She has written an account of life that is true. Put another way, she’s written true life in memoir form, but called it a novel.

8. Several years ago, professor and author Jenny Davidson offered thoughts worth reading on this subject:

9. One brief definition of a novel is “a fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism” (Merriam-Webster OnLine Dictionary). In a sense, Walls creates a new genre by terming her book a true-life novel. When I Google that phrase, Half Broke Horses seems to be the only entry to which this specific expression applies. Walls faced a dilemma in terminology. Is it a memoir? A biography? Historical fiction, perhaps?

Again, she clarifies: “…since I have also drawn on my imagination to fill in details that are hazy or missing—and I’ve changed a few names to protect people’s privacy—the only honest thing to do is call the book a novel.”

10. Experimentation in nomenclature could be an emerging literary trend. Yet what it may all boil down to this: If you’re a good writer, it doesn’t matter what you call it and Walls is much more than a good writer.

Memoir-Book-Reviewer-Lanie-TankardLanie Tankard is a freelance editor and writer in Austin, Texas.

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