Monday, April 12, 2010

Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls tells us that she had intended to write about her mother’s childhood growing up on a cattle ranch in Arizona, but the more she talked to her mom about those years the more her mother insisted that it was not she but her own mother, Lily, who had lived the truly interesting life and the one that deserved to be described. Jeannette resisted at first, since she had been only eight when her grandmother died, but she had been hearing stories about her grandmother all of her life, over and over. Finally, Jeannette gave in and decided to write what she calls a true-life novel about her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith.

In many ways this book is even more captivating than Walls now famous memoir, The Glass Castle, and I think it also provides a perspective on her own mother, Rose Mary Smith  Walls, that is in some ways lacking in the memoir. Lily Casey Smith was born in 1901 in west Texas, and spent most of her life in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. Her father was an intelligent man who understood horses even better than he understood people. He had been kicked in the head by a horse at the age of three, and from that incidence had a life-long speech impediment and a gimpy leg. The speech impediment and the limp led to his being not only misunderstood by others, but often being seen as mentally impaired. He would return from town enraged by his inability to make himself understood by men much less mentally agile than he. Since Lily was around him from birth, she could understand everything he said, and very quickly she became his right-hand ‘man,’ both in helping him to train sets of carriage horses and in speaking for him to the outside world. When she turned five, she began to help him train the carriage horses, and soon she was in charge of breaking the horses.
I was in charge of breaking the horses. It wasn’t like breaking wild mustangs, because our horses had been around us since they were foals. Most times I simply climbed on bareback—if the horse was too skinny, its spine sometimes rubbed a raw spot on my behind—grabbed a handful of mane, gave them nudge with my heels, and off we went, at first in awkward fits and starts, with a little crow hopping and swerving while the horse wondered what in tarnation a girl was doing on his back, but pretty soon the horse usually accepted his fate and we’d move along right nicely. After that, it was a matter of saddling him up and finding the best bit. Then you could set about training him.
It was during those years that she learned from her father, “Most important thing in life is learning how to fall.” She learned her lessons well. Her father also told her that what she had to figure out first was what her purpose was, and then set about fulfilling it. Always an avid reader, Lily became passionate about education, although the bit of formal education she got at thirteen at Sisters of Loretto Academy of Our Lady of the Light in Santa Fe was interrupted when her father failed to pay her tuition. When she asked if her younger brother, Buster, was also taken out of school, her father replied simply that a boy needs a diploma, “And anyway, we need you on the ranch.”

Still, Lily was convinced that her calling, her purpose, was to be a teacher. When she was fifteen, without even having an eighth grade education, she passed a government test that had been set up to find teachers due to a severe shortage caused by World War I. She traveled five hundred miles alone, on horseback, in order to get to Red Lake Arizona where she taught fifteen students of all ages and abilities. Since there was no teacherage attached to the one-room school (as there would be in other schools she taught in), she slept on the floor of the school in her bedroll. “Still, I loved my job. Superintendent MacIntosh hardly ever came around, and I got to teach exactly what I wanted to teach, in the way I wanted.”

The end of the war meant the return of young men both to fill teaching posts and to return to the factories where women had been holding down jobs that paid higher than teachers’ salaries. This combination meant that there were more qualified teachers available (at least in terms of education), and Lily was fired. Still, she had discovered her purpose, and from then on she taught at a number of tiny schools in isolated towns of Arizona and New Mexico. When she could scrape together the funds, she would attend university for awhile, loving every minute of it and finding it to be like a vacation compared to the hard life of helping her father run a ranch. She also traveled alone to Chicago, conned into a marriage there to an already married man, escaping from him and the big city after a year and returning to the southwest. As soon as she could, she learned to drive a car, and not long after that, how to fly a plane. Unlike her father, she realized that the future prospects of carriages, and carriage horses, was dim. “What Dad didn’t understand was that no matter how much he hated or feared the future, it was coming, and there was only one way to deal with it: by climbing aboard.”

And Lily climbed aboard. She taught in a tiny Mormon community until she was fired for teaching the girls that there was more to life than arranged marriages at thirteen. “You were free to choose enslavement, but the choice was a free one only if you knew what your alternatives were. I began to think of it as my job to make sure the girls I was teaching learned that it was a big world out there and there were other things they could do besides being broodmares dressed in feed sacks.” And although she married a lapsed Mormon, a so-called Jack-Mormon, the closest she ever came to Mormonism was her married name, Smith. She and her considerably older husband ran auto repair shops, managed large ranches, and she taught here and there, off and on, both to help support the family and to fulfill her purpose.

The charm of this book rests in the way Walls captures the spirit and voice of her grandmother. The prose is sparse and unpretentious. It describes the landscape and the hardships of life in language that is at once brittle and beautiful. As one of the commentators on the book says, Lily Casey Smith “is one astonishing woman…a half-broke horse herself who’s clearly passed on her best traits to her granddaughter.”

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